THE BECKONING by Jesse Hilson

Manifold. Travis Cravey. ELJ Editions, 2021. 44 pages.

The short, mostly very short, fictions in Travis Cravey’s collection Manifold might be described perhaps oxymoronically as soft slicing, brief intrusions that cause damage to the reader but do it in a subtle way that still retains some empathy and recognition for common humanity. Never far from the pain in the stories is deep understanding and resonance. The slashing is never apparently done with malice towards either the characters or the reader, but the wounds may be mortal.

Flash fiction is heralded in recent years as a kind of refined art form all its own, a craft of fiction that can’t afford to waste time or hit wrong notes that scatter the focus. The writer must get in and out of the reader’s consciousness with as little friction as possible, or if there is friction, it is felt after the story has finished. It’s a hard art form to do well. I’ve tried it and mostly failed. You have to have an eye for completion that appears at first glance incomplete, short arcs of characters’ lives that tell everything about the missing circle. Cravey is very good at this.

Cravey gives us moments in the lives of working men and women as they register deep, mundane losses that seem to have no edges, just a dull ache. The plots are subtle turnings of the screw, not to the sticking point but enough so that we can see how the two boards or pieces of metal will fit together. In “Pine Box” the narrator meditates on the loss of a love and takes a final cleansing revenge. “Takeout” finds another narrator hurt by the hidden messages of his wife’s refrain as she repeatedly comes home late from her job. The lyrical “Jack Rabbit” puts us in Leonard’s pick-up truck during a long drive across Texas and New Mexico. The significance of the drive and Leonard’s passenger are revealed to us in understated movements that are Cravey’s bread and butter, as Leonard from the driver’s seat spots a frantically running, almost hidden-in-the-scrub jack rabbit by the side of the road, wondering if it “had any idea where he was going.” The animal is elevated to a profound symbol that speaks to Leonard not in words but in somehow commiserating insight, “sprinting in the fading light, towards something, in the shadow of the Sierra Parda.”

Several stories, like “Grundfarben,” “A Folk Tale of Texas RR 1222,” and “To My Future Self, Written at the Counter of Linda’s Cafe, Stockton, Kansas, Before I Drove On to Kearney, Nebraska,” feature a beckoning that is given to their characters, some potential or fork in the road or calling that people must face, and the reader is taken out of the picture before they choose. Their choice, because it isn’t given, isn’t important; it’s more that the characters experience the call and the prospect of being removed from the environment in Cravey’s stories, which are infused with loss and unhappiness like toxic suspensions in vats of suffocating gel.

The fifteen stories in Manifold are sturdy and well-crafted but to me, two standouts are “Joy Ride” and the final, longer story “The Hidden Cost of the American Buffalo.” I don’t want to give away the details of both stories except to say that Cravey constructs characters with unlikable traits and decision trees who nevertheless still grudgingly manage to evoke in the reader insight and empathy and an unforgiving recognition of realness.

Cravey must have pared down each story to an essential skeleton as there is little fat on them, little veering into self-indulgence. Not every story’s clapper hits the bell squarely, but overwhelmingly most do, and I for one was happy to spend time in Cravey’s brief, emotional vignettes of the American landscape. I would like to see more fiction from Cravey, either flash or perhaps, if the canvas could be expanded slightly, longer fiction that lingers on its subjects for a few more frames of the fiction-aperture.

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