Field Trip: Stories by James Fowler. Cornerpost Press, 2022, Pp. 194
Reviewed by C. D. Albin
In a brief author’s note at the beginning of his debut story collection Field Trip, James Fowler designates place as the soil “from which my characters rise and in which they become themselves.” Yet unlike many authors who identify the notion of place as the source of their creativity, Fowler does not render, in the manner of Faulkner, a carefully mapped “postage stamp of native soil.” Rather, his characters are frequent travelers who traverse not only interstates but also inner states, sojourners of the soul who learn that places of embarkation can be equally as significant as those of arrival, and that places visited along the journey can work a shaping magic as well.
Such lessons are particularly resonant for the young, who populate a high percentage of the stories in Field Trip. An apt example is Reed Warren, protagonist of the title story, who departs Biloxi, Mississippi, behind the wheel of his father’s Avalon with no particular destination in mind. He simply heads north to escape Jubal Middle School and its “chief thug in residence” (1), Bryce Cobb, who has targeted newcomer Reed as a likely informant regarding Bryce’s drug dealing and thievery. At least, this is the motivation Reed acknowledges for the first two hundred miles of his journey, during which he somehow avoids being recognized for what he is, “a twelve-year-old driving a stolen car” (1). Somewhere south of Little Rock, however, Reed joins forces with a moderately maternal ex-con named Raylene whose determination to re-unite with her daughters in north Missouri brings into focus Reed’s deeper incentive for leaving Biloxi: “He just wanted to get away, maybe to make a statement that would have to be addressed on his return” (5). Just as Raylene seeks to mend family ruptures, so too does Reed, and their odd pairing forms a subtle paradigm for a number of stories in Field Trip.
“Undertow,” the collection’s haunting second selection, highlights one such pairing. In the story we follow the unnamed protagonist’s deepening descent into depression after her second miscarriage. She has become “a housewife disinclined to leave the house, wondering at people who willingly, eagerly pack for Alaskan cruises and Machu Picchu” (20). She also must remain wary of newspapers, which can convey the travails of strangers, specifically the suffering of a young victim chased by other adolescents who pummel him with rocks and leave him tangled in a fence outside the city. An announcer on her car radio reports that this boy eventually succumbs to his injuries, news that leaves the woman unmoored as she cruises the asphalt arteries of her city until she crosses a causeway and arrives at a nearby island. There, among others who are physically isolated from the main population, she detects the wailing cries of a lost child. Coaxing him into her car, she decides “some people don’t deserve children. If he were hers, he wouldn’t be wandering the beach, at the mercy of strangers. . . . Two straying lives have converged” (30). The drama created by this convergence spotlights a meaningful motif that occurs frequently throughout Field Trip.
“Borders” offers yet another take on this plot pattern of cars, convergence, and travel. Unemployed teenager Mike, still living with his parents, feels hemmed in by the nature of life in small-town Arkansas, which he senses “could be a series of dead ends when it came to jobs and maybe even relations. That truth had lately come into focus for him now that high school was history” (32). The necessity of summer employment forces Mike into a job hunt, but the pickings prove dismally slim until he spies a flyer at the local market advertising a driving position “for $6/hr plus gas” (33). The ad is authored by one Jerzy Dubilas, a European writer touring the U.S. for a book project. Dubilas is personable enough to have impressed the market cashier as “not-from-these-parts-strange but short of creepy” (33), so Mike interviews for and gets the job, which ultimately offers enough enlightening experiences to help him peer beyond the boundaries of his small town and, indeed, Arkansas itself. As a consequence, “Borders” turns out to be one of the more hopeful stories in “Field Trip,” with Mike broadening his personal range of possibilities even as his daily tours with Jerzy deepen his appreciation for the richness within, and without, Arkansas.
If “Borders” portrays a young man’s initial awakening to life’s larger potentials, “Second Growth,” set in the Arkansas Ozarks, portrays an elderly man’s warier, wearier embrace of new experience. Emmet Hollings, a recent widower, feels as if he has been “left to fend for himself in a house that [Phyllis] had always managed” (116), and his discomfiture only increases when the Rodriguezes, a Hispanic family who own the town’s newest restaurant, rent the house next door. To his credit, Emmet does not indulge the blatant prejudice of some in his neighborhood (like one man who protests the growing Hispanic presence in the Ozarks by refusing to serve chicken at barbecues), nor does he join in the “old-guard talk” at Turk’s Barber Shoppe, “talk that cross-stitched memories when it wasn’t circling the wagons” (123). Yet Emmet is not without reservations regarding the new family next door. Early in the story his concerns read like a list of ethnic clichés, from the specter of declining property values and parties on the lawn to the scourge of drugs and crime. Yet the Rodriguezes, especially the children, are active and sometimes even gregarious, creating situations in which Emmet’s gently harbored preconceptions are swept aside by the common humanity of flesh and blood people. As a result, his inward journeys turn out to be as substantial in their consequence as Reed Warren’s journey from Biloxi to north Missouri, or Mike’s explorations of the four corners of Arkansas. Emmet is even beginning to think “that he had it in him to surprise himself. Growing older, it seemed you could become both more set in your ways and less set in your attitudes” (125).
While Emmet Hollings is representative of the relatively few characters in this collection who stay put, at least physically, the inner growth to which he opens himself characterizes the most significant aspect of his fellow travelers within Field Trip. James Fowler is a traditional storyteller in this regard: he is careful to chart a character’s significant decisions, those turning points in a person’s life that occur in what we might call the deep interior, but which eventually manifest themselves in a character’s conduct and values. There is certainly variety in Fowler’s story structures, along with engaging humor and an often urbane narrative voice, but ultimately there is a notable spiritual aspect in this author’s respect for the mystery of human quest and change. Field Trip may be Fowler’s debut as an author of fiction, but it nevertheless proves to be a substantive addition to the literature of the mid-South region.
James Fowler’s poetry collection, The Pain Trader, was published by Golden Antelope Press in 2020. His poems, stories, and essays have appeared in various journals over the past thirty-five years. He currently teaches literature at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, a convenient starting point for day trips through the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains.
C. D. Albin is a professor of English at Missouri State University–West Plains. In 2009, he became the founding editor of Elder Mountain: A Journal of Ozarks Studies. His fiction, poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in a number of publications, including Arkansas Review, Big Muddy, Cape Rock, Cave Region Review, Georgia Review, Harvard Review, Natural Bridge, Philological Review, and Style. Ten of his short stories were collected in Hard Toward Home, published by Press 53 in 2016, a collection for which Albin received the Missouri Author Award from the Missouri Library Association in 2017. His poetry collection, Axe, Fire, Mule, was published by Golden Antelope Press in 2018.