Book Review by Sam Slaughter
Across time and space, from the clay farms of Georgia to bigger cities elsewhere, Cate McGowan’s debut collection of stories, True Places Never Are, extrapolate on the idea—borrowed from a quote by Melville—that a true place, something real to the seeker, is not something that is found on any map. Instead, the hunt for true places occurs elsewhere. In the heart, in the mind, in places and times and circumstances that force characters to examine themselves and others in myriad ways.
In these nineteen stories, McGowan pushes on the idea of place and what it means for characters that are displaced, either physically or mentally from their native landscapes. The book is divided into three sections — And I Made a Rural Pen, History is a Gallery of Pictures, and The Hum of Cities — and the stories accurately reflect those titles. Of the three sections, McGowan’s strongest work comes in the first, where her characters inhabit the gritty, mostly tough life of McGowan’s native Georgia. The rural-based problems these characters face hum with energy and the stories themselves reflect a solid knowledge of the sort of existence pictured. In the first story, “Arm, Clean Off,” a boy struggles to find help after his arm is cut off in a farming accident. The story is beautiful and brutal. The boy, throughout, is as focused on what his father will say as he is saving his own life. It is moments like these that make this collection shine.
When it comes down to it, McGowan’s best work overall is her flash fiction. In those stories, notably the first in the collection, “Arm, Clean Off,” she is able to conduct a symphony of images and feelings in a short space. The stories are shotgun bursts of talent and they leave you wanting more. McGowan’s longer pieces—“Thirty Men, Not One,” for example—do not pack the same punch and as a result feel less engaging, though there is nothing technically wrong with them. The longer stories feel too long; the narratives wander a little too much to remain cohesive for their entirety. Progression is muddled by a lack of narrative action.
The real and the imagined come together often in McGowan’s stories in pleasant ways; it is this blending that really allows readers to feel for the characters as they struggle through feelings of being lost and not really knowing their identities. This is enhanced by—almost as often as not—the main characters not being named. In not naming her characters, McGowan sidesteps tethering them to the concrete. Instead, almost anyone could be a stand-in for the “He” and “She” that readers encounter.
True Places Never Are is a solid debut collection. McGowan’s stories are tender, yet unafraid of showing the brutality that can exist in life when one is lost—whether in the literal or figurative sense.
Sam Slaughter is a fiction writer based in Central Florida. He serves in various editorial capacities for Atticus Review, Entropy, and Black Heart Magazine. He’s had work published in Midwestern Gothic, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Heavy Feather Review, among others. His debut chapbook, When You Cross That Line, will be published in May 2015. He loves playing with puppies and drinking good bourbon.