I’VE STRUGGLED, since reading This Jealous Earth, to pinpoint a word which best describes my reaction to a collection of 16 short stories by Northfield (MN.) author Scott Dominic Carpenter. And that should be considered a compliment.
Carpenter’s stories about relationships and aging, choices and regrets, and more, hold an element of mystery, a deeper meaning which reveals itself as the plots progress, until the ending and the ah-ha moment evoked.
For example, in the first paragraphs of “The Tender Knife,” I expect a husband to kill his wife, not his koi. He didn’t, but he did. Now if that makes no sense, that is precisely my point. Carpenter possesses that unique ability to mess with your mind/throw you for a loop, cliché phrases that totally apply to a writing style that is anything but cliché.
He takes aspects of everyday life—vacations, marital and sibling discord, the death of a parent, aging, love, fear and more—and crafts stories to which his readers can relate. Aging Baby Boomers can surely empathize with Donna, married 30 years with three grown children and the main character in “Riddles.” She and her husband are on a long-awaited European vacation when she loses her way in an art museum. As she struggles to weave through a labyrinth of art she cannot understand, Donna understands she’s waited too long for this trip.
Carpenter writes, in Donna’s voice:
To think that she had begged for this trip! What in God’s name had she been thinking? What was the point? And what on earth were you to do after the scales have tipped in your life, after the children have gone, and all you have left to do is wait?
His stories mostly center on choices—to shoplift or not, to keep or to toss, to reconcile or give up, to attempt to save or to let go, to stand up for yourself or to submit, to simply accept or to challenge/change/question.
In “This Jealous Earth,” the story from which the book draws its title, a family awaits the rapture. But one, the non-believing son, Randy, will be left behind. Therein lies the conflict for his obedient younger sister, Cat. Will she choose faith or family? That dilemma, and the consequences, leave the reader hanging on every word until the clincher ending.
Likewise, in “The Visit,” the tension builds when a child goes missing on a rural acreage with a pond. I’m not going to reveal the ending, but I simply must share the final sentence of that story because it’s so powerful and perhaps so true of how we often choose to cover our fears with meaningless conversation:
And with lavish servings of words, always more words, they covered over the memory of the pond, black and still.
Carpenter chooses words with care. That is obvious, especially so in “The Spirit of the Dog” where even the name of the main character, Caleb, holds significance. Because I have a son named Caleb, I know the name means “dog” (although I chose my son’s name for the biblical Caleb and certainly not the canine reference). Read this story about miners, a dog that is killed, superstition and stolen possessions and you will understand the double-meaning in that name.
I couldn’t pen a fair review of This Jealous Earth without noting that I nearly stopped reading half way through the first story, “The Tender Knife.” I struggled with details in killing of the koi. Don’t allow that to distract if you are squeamish like me. The story is most definitely worth reading. Likewise, several stories include the f-word and sexual undertones that may offend. However, these are not used lightly, but as integral parts of shaping a character and/or developing the plot.
If Carpenter’s first book of fiction is any indication of what readers can expect from him, then I’m already a fan. His next book, Theory of Remainders, is due for release in May. Here’s the promo description: A suspenseful literary novel set in the lush backgrounds of Normandy, Theory of Remainders explores the secret ties between love, trauma, and language.
Carpenter has already proven to me that he can write, and with a strong voice definitively his.
His upcoming appearances include public readings at 6 p.m. Thursday, March 7, at Barnes & Noble, 14880, Apple Valley, and at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 8, at Monkey See, Monkey Read, 425 Division Street South in downtown Northfield. Besides writing, Carpenter teaches French literature and critical theory at Carleton, a liberal arts college in Northfield.
BECAUSE I WAS PARTICULARLY intrigued by the upside down placement of the field and sky image on the cover of This Jealous Earth, I posed these questions to publisher MG Press:
Could you explain the photo selection and why it was placed upside down on the cover? What message/feeling/whatever are you hoping to evoke in the reader?
Here’s the response from MG’s Robert James Russell:
The fact that the photo is upside down aligns with the themes of miscommunication and the confrontations of strangeness inherent in all of the stories in the collection. The land (or earth, as it were), gives us a sense that the disconnect and strangeness is dealing with familiar things (that is, it is not a paranormal strangeness, or anything truly otherworldly).
It’s meant to be disorienting, but not jarring, and demonstrate how a simple choice or change of perspective can completely alter how something is viewed. These types of choices are the ones the characters in This Jealous Earth face in all of the stories, ones that will permanently alter how they view their lives.
On a more aesthetic level, we chose this image specifically because, quite simply, it was gorgeous and we felt the contrasting tones would work well to achieve our goal.
© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Images courtesy of Scott Dominic Carpenter and MG Press
The book cover design is by Sarah E Melville, Sleeping Basilisk Graphic Design.
Author photo is by Paul Carpenter.