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January 4, 2013

“Music Through the Floor”

by Anne Paddock

Music Through the Floor is a collection of ten fictional short stories written by Eric Puchner, a writer and professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College in California.  Published in 2005, Music Through the Floor was a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award and The California Book Award – a tremendous accomplishment for an author’s first publication of short stories.

Each short story is written from the perspective of a different type of person – an adult, a child, an immigrant, a teen – and yet the main characters share a hunger for love, a feeling of being different, and an unrealized sense of being misguided.In Children of God, a young man decides to stay in Portland, Oregon after living in his car for a month and “driving aimlessly around the West living off his father’s Mobil credit card.” He takes a job as a Community Living Instructor teaching “patterns of survival” to two grown men in their 30’s who couldn’t tie their shoes much less go to the bathroom by themselves. As the weeks pass, he becomes acutely aware of the world’s reluctance to embrace the physically and mentally challenged and the little things that bring a smile to their faces.

In Child’s Play, a young boy whose parents are too busy with a new baby, struggles to deal with his feelings for a boyhood friend and his desire to fit in and be a part of a “gang” of little hoodlums.  Angry at his parents and vacillating between boyhood and adolescence, C. P. (Clinton Parker) is a boy most readers will recognize from the past. And, in A Fear of Invisible Tribes, a young misfit of a woman named Quinn seeks solace and approval from the most unlikely of characters – a woman named Delaney who is a recovering alcoholic. A chance encounter and a brief shared experience draws Quinn to Delaney with a very unexpected outcome. Mission is the story of a naive young man who chooses to teach English to immigrants – not because he thinks their lives will improve but because he seeks approval and adoration. A great short story about a misguided do-gooder.

The theme of a child seeking love and approval is exemplified in Neon Tetra, a story told from the perspective of a a boy who accompanies his father to a pet store to buy fish while his father has another goal in mind. In Animals Here Below, a little boy is the narrator in a poignant tale of  two children being raised by adults who never should have had children. Desperate to be loved, Ian and Caitlin lost a mother and stepmother but put in place a plan to get the stepmother back. And in Body Language, the actions of a 4-year old boy speak louder than words when his mother seeks solace in the arms of another man whose own wife is suffering from a disease that is turning her body to stone and where her “brain will be imprisoned in a statue’s body.” Told from the perspective of a man feeling sorry for himself, Body Language is the story of people blind to how their behavior impacts others.

Some of the best short stories revolve around a character who doesn’t see the danger lurking around the corner.  In Legends, a young married couple goes to Mexico on a vacation only to discover their destination is a place where “death sat down with you over eggs and wrung its beauty in your ear.” Desmond is an introverted copywriter at an advertising agency who works magic with words in the confines of a safe office when not on vacation. His inquisitive but naive wife, Meredith seeks adventure and Desmond follows like a lamb only to discover too late that an adventure in a small Mexican town is quite different from an adventure in the United States.

Diablo is a story told from the perspective of a Mexican immigrant trying to support his family and himself as an illegal laborer working for a construction company in California. Ofelio Campos has had a hard life but has never shied away from work. He left Mexico when his wife was pregnant so Ofelio has not seen her in 3 years nor has he ever met his 2-year old daughter.  To preserve his sense of family, Ofelio “would buy tamales every Sunday from the Mexican grocery and sit beside his wife’s photograph, pretending they were having dinner together.” The story of an outsider who yearns for a normal life that seems so far out of reach.

In Essay #3, Leda and the Swan, a young adolescent named Natalie is tasked with writing an essay about the poem Leda and the Swan by William Butler Yeats.  The poem is Yeats’ take on the mythical story of how Zeus turned himself into a swan and either seduced or raped Leda although Natalie’s interpretation is that a perverted swan had sex with a loose girl, concluding that Yeats knows nothing about swans – “that they can feel pain and hunger, just like any other living creature.”  That Natalie completely missed the point of the poem is what makes the short story so powerful. Natalie is a self-absorbed teen and chooses to write about herself instead.  She tells the reader of her superior beauty and moral standards, of stealing her older sister’s boyfriend – thinking that the swan in Yeats’ poem is the misunderstood boyfriend while Leda is her slutty sister when in fact, the truth is quite different. A compelling story of a disillusioned teen.

Music Through the Floor is a wonderful collection of short stories that will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page.

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