Water of an Undetermined Depth
by Richard Chiappone
Published by Stackpole Books
131 pages, 2003
Stories that Swim in the Deep End
Reviewed by David Abrams
The fact that Richard Chiappone shares the same initials as the godfather of modern short fiction is pure coincidence. The fact that Chiappone's stories in Water of an Undetermined Depth punch readers in the gut with the same five-knuckled force Raymond Carver used in his fiction is perhaps less surprising. The characters in these 14 tales, nearly all of them down-on-their-luck blue collar guys, could have stepped straight from the pages of Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? without even bumping the ash off their cigarettes. Carver's ghost haunts every page of Water of an Undetermined Depth.
Comparing contemporary writers to Carver is a safe avenue for reviewers to take when trying to describe a book's tone (Tense. Gritty. Genuine.) and I'll admit I'm about to go down Easy Street; but we have to start somewhere. Hell, when Geoffrey Wolff reviewed Carver's first book, he compared him to guys like Harold Pinter, Thomas Pynchon and Franz Kafka. I'm only surprised Wolff didn't mention Hemingway as well. Carver called Papa H "a marvelous writer" and once said, "There was something about the cadence of those sentences that excited me."
There was always something about Carver's cadences that gave me a blood rush, an excitement generated from the page to the eye to the brain to the heart in the space of an eyeblink. It was like the joy of seeing new terrain for the first time, the way he formed his valleys and mountain ranges across the span of sentences.
It's a joy I haven't felt in a long time. Not until I picked up Water of an Undetermined Depth, that is, and started reading his first story, "The Chubs," about a college student who ditches class to go fishing in creeks trickling past the town's chemical plants. The story, set in upstate New York, hooked me like a perfectly-tied Royal Wulff when I read sentences like these:
I could look out the mouth of the creek and down the big river and see the Chevy plant, and I was appalled. I swore that my life would never revolve in such a grubby little orbit, that my future would be different, special somehow. I think I believed that.
The boy's father startles him one day by skipping work at the chlorine gas plant to go fishing with him at the polluted creek. As his father drifts aimlessly through mid-life depression, the boy imagines his own future.
But what I could not see was myself ten years down the road with a wife and children and none of the skills needed to support us. What I couldn't see were the layoffs and cutbacks and plant closings, the lines at the unemployment office stretching down Pine Avenue and around the corner, the past-due bills, the loans unpaid, the credit cards full and the checkbook empty. What I couldn't see was the journey back and forth across the continent in search of work, and a marriage collapsing as love gave way to shame and blame and the sure death of affection that goes with that whole life. What I couldn't see was me going to my father with my hand out like a beggar, like a stranger in need.
Can't you just hear that Carver drumbeat?
Chiappone's men and women lead lives of quiet desperation, clawing their way up the side of a crumbling dirt bank, falling back one step for every two taken, their fingers soiled and bleeding. Fortune and ruin are like the red and black spaces on a roulette wheel. You just never know where the ball's going to drop in these characters' lives. Most of the time, the luck is rotten. As one character observes, "That's the way it is. Some things move when you least expect them, others won't budge at all."
Chiappone, who now lives in Alaska, grew up in Niagara Falls, New York, where some of his stories are set. Others take place in a Central American jungle, an Aleutian Islands cannery, a Caribbean fishing charter and a motel room in New Mexico: wherever the water of life is of an undetermined depth, wherever things won't budge, wherever men with miserable wives wonder "how many failures it would take before things started working out."
In "Q Roo," a Mexican fishing guide tries to placate his unhappy wife while putting up with an Ugly American client. In "Love A, Love B," a man can only confront his wife's infidelity while wearing a Halloween mask. In "Old Friend," a man checks out of gambler's rehab only to hear voices from his TV urging him to come join the action in the poker room.
Chiappone's eye (and ear) for detail is exceptional. He's obviously spent time with these stories, boiling sentences down to the bone. You learn everything you need to know about one character in the space of 23 words: "[He] combed his fingers through his hair. He held them under his nose. He could smell the forklift exhaust clinging to the hair oil."
As with Carver, what matters most is what's left unsaid on the page. Reading Water of an Undetermined Depth, I was uncomfortably familiar with these characters. They are the women buying bread and cigarettes at 2:30 a.m. in Safeway, they are the unreasonably cheerful tow-truck drivers in greasy overalls who pull me out of the snowy ditch, they are the pinch-faced drivers on the rain-slick streets who hunch over their steering wheels, they are the silently unhappy folks who swim past me every day like dark shadowy trash fish hoping one day to swim free of the polluted creek.
In Chiappone's fiction, there is pain, there is hope, but most of all there is the kind of tough, gritty, genuine writing that instantly snaps our brains to attention. Richard Chiappone is not some tweedy, brandy-sipping guy sitting in an ivory tower turning out tales of unrecognizable characters. He is one of us.
Ray C. would be damned proud. | March 2003
David Abrams has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.