Reviewed by Alexandra Barbush
A writhing portraiture of the losers, outcasts, and hourly workers across the ever-still landscape of small dusty towns in America
Barton’s Eternal Night at the Nature Museum sheds light on a cast of unlovable characters: an hourly museum-worker, a demolition derby evangelist, a spinster with an affinity for homemade mailboxes. Each story stands on its own but a few overarching themes repeat: a landscape of largely forgotten small towns across Pennsylvania, unreliable narrators who slowly (or rapidly) reveal themselves, intimate peeks into the quotidian pain of feeling forgotten, left behind, and inconsequential.
Barton’s prose manages to be funny while painstakingly honest, overtly earnest, and, at times, prickly, leaving his characters, their dialogue, and the overall tone of the entire work quite raw. While some stories wrap up succinctly, with the reader walking away with a clear conclusion and a beginning, middle, and end, many leave the reader on edge and unsure.
Barton asks the question: what is happiness in America when you are broke, normal, or alone, and where can it be found? Anywhere? Everywhere?
The series of short stories follows no linear plan, and each lives and dies with its own character, setting, and style. Flash fiction bounces among longer stories, splitting the readers’ attention space, which is a positive with a mix of somewhat heavy stories. Most stories focus on protagonists, or villains, at or nearing the bottom of society. Barton’s cast of characters includes runaway gay youths, a deranged watchmen, a doomsday prepper. He humanizes his characters, typically in a dramatic and/or tragic situation, allowing the reader who is likely distanced from the wild “other” of the characters, to begin to understand.
In one story, “Watchperson,” an overly helpful neighborhood watchperson has his shot at being a hero when he happens upon a couple who has just been robbed. In an attempt to help, the watchperson takes the couple to their car, promising to take them to the police station. As his chance at heroism slips away the longer they’re in the car, the longer he can’t remember the way to the “real police.” We watch the watchperson slip into panic, paranoia, and delusion, ultimately harming that which he feels sworn to protect.
Another short, “Seven Corners, Pennsylvania,” focuses on a men’s therapy group that collectively falls in love, analyzes, and eventually stalks their joint therapist. While we start with an examination of the raw sadsacks who obsess over a mental health professional, Barton smoothly turns focus to Carla, the therapist. While she spurns their advances, changes her number, leaves her practice in order to avoid the stalkers, the main character wonders about her “…how many times, for her, a move has been a necessity, an escape from the need of men.” We leave the narrative wondering about her motives, her moves, if her sexuality and selfness is a naive concept, glommed onto by perverts or if she moves and calculates according to the needs of men.
Eternal Night at the Nature Museum showcases micro instances of being human with humor and surprise. Many of his stories are engaging, with an interesting twist or a subtle reveal that clues the reader into the central story, the meat of the narrative, as yet to be revealed, and with a conspiratorial grin. They mostly feature the working man, that is to say, the individual confined to the lower class of US society, with a hint of nostalgia and an engrossing look at what makes them, and us, tick.
His characters are largely frustrating but incredibly earnest. His tone is strong, clear, and pays attention to the individual experience of the current story’s narrator. Barton’s power comes from his ability to unflinchingly examine the underdog experience without pity or remorse.
While most of the stories create a tangential stream of characterization and emotional exploration, like many short story collections, some pieces read stronger than others. Throughout the 200 page collection, Barton employs a range of narrators who tell their unique stories through small town dialects and tone. Some narrators are more convincing than others: a young female protagonist contemplating sex with her older boyfriend feels a bit on-the-nose. In “Black Sands,” she says, “Maybe all he really wants from me is something I’m not ready to want back.”
While his characters are all-together entrancing, deep, and specific, in some stories, Barton compromises deep emotional feeling for a perception of range. His attempts to embody a spinster, an ex-con, a young gay man, a girly teenager, a doomsday prepper (the list goes on), with accurate dialect, voice, and tone, are perhaps too big a task, and in that, he risks robbing some of his interesting inventions of a real experience.
Overall, I’d recommend this short story collection for anyone interested in localized feeling, nostalgia, and the quotidian experience of emotional pain. It reads with unflinching clarity and real purpose, with some stories being powerful enough to invoke real feeling (mostly dread at the character experience) and introspection in the reader.
You won’t find grand prose or lofty sentiments in Eternal Night, more like pizza boxes, acned youths, and hometown heroes. It’s a quick read, easily parsable for the in-between moments where we sneak a chapter. Each story I finished, I found myself wanting just one more—perhaps one of the highest compliments I can afford any collection.
Publisher: Sarabande Books
Genre: Literary / Short Story Collection
Print Length: 216 pages
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