Okla Elliott takes the title for From the Crooked Timber, his first collection of short stories, from Immanuel Kant, and hews clear, clean narratives out of the stubbornly knotted and twisted lives of his male protagonists, some of whom narrate their own stories.  They are familiar characters, particularly to readers who know what Chris Offutt has made of lives of those born in rural Eastern Kentucky, but Elliott handles his characters differently, and his perspectives on them are his own. 

The half-drunk man at the center of  “The Queen of Limbo” struggles to accept the end of his marriage while giving a ride to a girl, prepubescent and intent on winning the limbo contest at Pink’s Skate Rink.  Reynolds, back from military action and wearing a prosthetic leg in “The Long Walk Home,” reconnects with a girl he had known in high school, now a woman as ravaged by life as he.  And the boy Tanner in “The Kidnapping” recounts his father’s need for contact with the son his ex-wife and parents have determined he does not deserve to love. It is simplistic but not inaccurate to say that Elliott’s stories are about the giving and withholding of love and about men’s nostalgic need for something approximating innocence.

This places From the Crooked Timber in line of descent from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, in that it deals with loneliness and the disillusionment with which ordinary men and women grapple in the American heartland. Make no mistake about it; Elliott’s debut volume of fiction marks the arrival of a considerable talent.  Already a published poet, dramatist, and essayist, editor of a collection of Chekhov stories, and an MFA graduate from Ohio State University, he has rolled the dice on this book and won. 

It is an achievement to render, as he does, as occasion for sorrow the lives of people losing sight of their dreams.  In “They Live on the Water,” Denis takes the body of his daughter home for burial among the family he struggled to escape and faces the hollow life he has lived apart from his kin.  The narrator of “The Good Earth, the Mud” watches his friend Jess skate dangerously close to suicide when his wife leaves him; and the adolescent guy at the center of “El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles” documents the dysfunction in the relationship of his parents, the violence and crime brought into his mother’s life by a boyfriend, and himself dopes and drinks and itches for sexual contact with a girl in the trailer park in which he lives. If this were the sum total of Elliott’s achievement, it would be plenty. 

In these stories, he manages to show men caught in circumstances they cannot change and yet responsible for much that happens to them.   It is the novella “The Names of Distant Galaxies,” however, that makes this first collection of stories particularly memorable.  Elliott’s narrator tells the story of his emotionally ambiguous relationship with a stepmother struggling with a neurological disorder.  The material is not different from that examined in the shorter texts, but the narrative gamble he takes with the material makes the novella the most significant text in the collection.  The story is told from two perspectives in time by the same character, the boy who resents his father’s remarriage and the young man about to be married himself.

The narrative movement requires the reader to calibrate the statements made by a mature adult who may not want to face the depth of his attachment to the woman who replaced his mother in his father’s life against those made by an immature, sexually naïve child.  There is something in this technical gamble, and it is a gamble Elliott takes here, that recalls the early work of William H. Gass in the story collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.  And there is something of Gass in the way he allows his characters to speak for themselves and his readers to struggle to master the code necessary to read the message being delivered.  At times, “The Names of Distant Galaxies” reads as though it is the first part of a yet uncompleted novel, such are the gaps in the text readers must negotiate.  And at others, the novella is as powerful and as tightly knit a piece of fictional prose as one could want, as complete and satisfying as Elliott’s shorter stories. 

This is a memorable book, and also a profoundly ethical one. Elliott throws his characters into situations in which they may rise and succeed or fail.  They are familiar situations, but it is the ways in which the men navigate through their lives and negotiate the claims of conflicting loyalties that make Elliott’s stories so special. He writes with energy, sometimes elegantly and sometimes not, but he brings a fine moral passion to bear on the situations he writes about.  He understands his characters, and so do I because he works hard at letting them reveal themselves.  Even when they are inarticulate or emotionally confused, Elliott’s protagonists are men I understand and sometimes love. 

Having read From the Crooked Timber twice in as many months and found the collection richer and more satisfying on second reading, I suspect that Okla Elliott has become one of those writers whose careers I’ll watch and this one of those books I’ll read again.  For now, I’ll shelve it near Anderson’s Winesburg and Gass’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.  It will be in good company.