Ron Parsons’ The Sense of Touch (stories)
Review by Elizabeth Giorgi
Aqueous Books, 2013
Ron Parsons contributed a short story, “Beginning with Minneapolis” to Flyway‘s 2008 issue. “Beginning with Minneapolis” is included in this collection.
There’s a moment in “Hezekiah Number Three,” the opening story of Ron Parsons’ debut collection The Sense of Touch, when a character boards a hot air balloon for a trip over the Black Hills of South Dakota.
This being literary fiction, the ride serves as the climax of a story about mental breakdowns, culture clashes and the bonds of friendship, but the scene could also serve as a metaphor for the collection’s eight stories as a whole. While those on either coast might dismiss the Midwest as “flyover country,” that landscape—its pine hills and prairies, its frozen cities—forms the core of Parsons’ brief, promising debut. Like the hot air balloon his character boards, Parsons’ stories might not always remain tethered to their setting, but the Midwest is where they’re grounded.
Parsons is a Michigan native, raised in South Dakota and educated at the University of Minnesota, and his fiction explores these landscapes through diverse narrators, from urban hipsters to small town college kids, characters tied to the land and characters passing through it. Throughout the book, Parsons employs a style at once lyric and accessible, his stories—like the river his characters tube in “Moonlight Bowling,” a meditation on commitment and fatherhood— sometimes meandering, sometimes rapid-paced, but always expanding in unexpected directions. In his best stories—and Sense contains several standouts—these unexpected twists mimic the rhythms and curveballs of real life. In the collection’s weaker stories—and there are a few of those, as well—those same twists can come across as contrived.
But even in those weaker stories, Parsons reveals a gift for examining his characters’ chance connections and for lingering on small but telling details. In that opening story, for example, an MIT physics student suffers a mental breakdown, returning to his hometown in South Dakota with a three-legged cat, parking on his stepmothers’ roof in an old folding chair, and cultivating a friendship with a former high school classmate before embarking on his ill-fated balloon flight.
Or there’s “Beginning with Minneapolis,” first published in Flyway in 2008, a portrait of an on-again, off-again marriage that begins with the rhythms of a quirky indie comedy—middle-aged farm wife runs off to make a new life for herself in the city, only to find herself yearning for the husband she left behind—and ends somewhere wholly unexpected, both macabre and lovely.
Throughout, Parsons’ writing moves between long, descriptive passages and deceptively simple, utilitarian prose, a style that mostly charms despite occasionally becoming overwrought. Take, for instance, the opening to “Beginning with Minneapolis,” where he writes,
“The clouds lingered like bruises, violet and swollen, as the sun dipped below the shoulders of the soft horizon not so far from Waylon Baker’s farm. Sometimes, Waylon felt as though he could walk off the landscape’s edge, like he could step off the side of his cedar porch and fall through the doom of space, until his feet set down upon some other dusty, broken planet: waiting, wanting, grateful for his seed.”
Despite a few instances of inconsistent editing—stories that slip between tenses, for example—it’s also worth noting how good this book looks and feels, with its thick, heavy pages, glossy ink and satisfying heft, tactile considerations made all the more valuable in this age of e-readers.
While they may have a few ragged edges, Sense of Touch’s eight stories make up a promising, though fleeting, debut. I look forward to seeing what other stories Parsons has in him.