by Melissa Fraterrigo
University of Nebraska Press, $19.95, 180pp.
Melissa Fraterrigo’s novel-in-stories Glory Days is at once ethereal and material. It dabbles in the natural and the supernatural, the spiritual and the corporeal. Set in the fictional town of Ingleside, Nebraska, Glory Days pulls us into a struggling Midwestern community and into the psyches of its tragic residents. Haunted by their own pasts and the ghosts of their loved ones, the characters in Glory Days are up against the forces of a world determined to overlook them.
At times, the book ventures into magical realism. There are clairvoyants and ghosts and stories from dead characters. But there are also fields and cows and economic uncertainty. We see into the clouds; we feel the velvet loam of the earth. Fraterrigo blends these two worlds together seamlessly to give us a portrait of a place and a time, of a town grappling with modernity.
The publisher describes this book as a kind of “gritty realism.” Indeed, it’s as if a fine film of prairieland dust coats the pages of Glory Days. Fraterrigo’s prose is sensory and idiomatic, her details precise:
“My left hand chews up my dress fabric” (3).
“A dizzy gray radiance ripped off his clothes, and he saw a car lifted hundreds of feet in the air. Glass and heavy moving things battered his body. There was the pop of power lines, and the slit of his rump cupped air. He tasted damp wool and old milk, whimpered hot and cold all at once” (18).
“In the darkness he could see a plastic reindeer wearing a felt vest, a box full of framed photos, and half a dozen cases of soda pop. Who drinks this much pop, he wondered” (33).
“July in Ingleside. River low and motionless. Brook trout disappear, but the frogs multiply tenfold with their deep throaty cries. Only a few farms are left, but corn pollen still thicks the air with its fertile rotting” (72).
“It hasn’t rained for weeks, and the river is as thick and unmoving as cake batter” (95).
The stories follow Luann, her father Teensy, and a handful of other characters who are, in one way or another, connected to Glory Days, Ingleside’s amusement park. In “Bastard,” which appeared in storySouth in Fall 2014, we closely follow Footer, one of the novel’s most complex and frightening characters. The story details his increasing desperation as he’s broken into a home, while also subtly elaborating on the desolation of the place he lives. His is a life born of violence, and he perpetuates it, even past “Bastard.”
In “Skin” we revisit Teensy, who we met in the first story chasing the ghost of his wife. Teensy is always carrying around his own past, and his skin, burned when he was a child, is a physical reminder of his emotional damage. Attempting redemption and believing he has “another chance to set things straight” between himself and his estranged daughter, Teensy is again chasing something he’ll never catch.
And perhaps that’s the heartbreaking core of Glory Days—it’s not the town itself or the kidnappings or the deaths, but the fact that the characters inhabiting this novel only seem to escape their circumstances through fantasy, drug abuse, and self-delusion. Luann believes her “real” family is better than the one she has. Footer believes kidnapping children will be good for them after they’re released. Teensy believes he can rectify his poor parenting. The characters in Glory Days are flawed, their thinking is flawed, and yet it is impossible not to empathize with them.
Without completely spoiling it, I will say that the novel’s epiphanic ending brings a kind of hopeful resolution to readers—the kind of ending I longed for after having my heart ripped out through Fraterrigo’s depictions of place, the failings of love, and the relentlessness of grief.