Alice Fulton's collection of short fiction, "The Nightingales of Troy," vividly infuses 10 stories of the members of a New York state Irish clan with humanity, humor and nuance.
“The Nightingales of Troy”
by Alice Fulton
W.W. Norton, 256 pp., $23.95
Understanding your family history is often a haphazard affair. You get bits and pieces about your Uncle Felix, but not enough to know why he never laughs at your father’s jokes — which you think are funny. And your Aunt June is sometimes called “Juice” by your mother. Why is that? Your mother won’t say.
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So it is wonderful to read a writer who can bring out the nuances in the lives of relatives that reveal their full humanity, important moments that fill in their stories and link them to both the family past and the family present.
With her first book of short fiction, “The Nightingales of Troy,” poet Alice Fulton introduces such people: the female descendants of the Garrahans, a resilient Irish Catholic family living in Troy, N.Y. Fulton charts their collective history through the decades of the 20th century in a series of 10 linked short stories.
In “Happy Dust” we meet Mamie Flynn Garrahan, a 26-year-old farming woman who has tuberculosis: “I was thin as a cat whisker. I had a hacking cough and pallor. My face had taken on shadows. Though I was in a bad state of wilt, I couldn’t admit it. In 1908, a wasting disease was a blot on the family name.”
Mamie is pregnant with her fifth child. Concerned with her fitful health, her doctor gives her a packet of Bayer Heroin Powder. Not one to hedge her bets, Mamie also makes a pilgrimage to a nuns’ convent where she secures a vial of Indian Perfection Medicine.
Mixing dry wit with a knowing sense of the foibles of human character, Fulton creates a funny, spirited tale of the powers of self-reliance.
Peg Flynn, the heroine of “Queen Wintergreen,” faces another kind of problem and solves it very differently. At 65, Peg must weigh a marriage proposal with her own sense of self. Here Fulton presents a quiet study in dignity and the family pressures the young can direct against the old.
Without making each story a period piece, Fulton weaves in contemporary details into her fiction that skillfully place her characters in time. “A Shadow Table” opens with a line that perfectly captures the 1920s: “In Fox’s Sweet Shoppe, I once saw a woman take off her shoe, unscrew the heel, and drink from it like a shot-glass.”
The title story, “The Nightingales of Troy,” describes a colorful, Depression-era Catholic priest this way: “He had a standing offer of free soup at Troy Sandwich because he attracted business.”
“Dorothy Loves Maleman,” a story about a sibling’s mental illness, has this evocative sentence in the first paragraph: “While tar stuck to her bare feet and wind toyed with her towel, while Dorothy lit match after match, and neighbors peeked through blackout curtains left over from the war, Edna worried her sister would burn herself.”
As decades move ahead, Garrahans reappear, older and not necessarily wiser. Now the stories are told by their children, who are often appalled by their parents’ behavior.
In the brilliantly comic “The Real Eleanor Rigby,” teenage Ruth Livingston and her best friend Sunny win a local radio contest and get to visit the Beatles’ dressing room at New York’s Shea Stadium. Unfortunately for Ruth, her irrepressible mother, Annie, is her escort. When Annie Garrahan Livingston meets the Beatles, amazing things happen that send poetic, intellectual Ruth (along with the Beatles, she’s addicted to Melville) to the heights of humiliation and happiness.
As in every family, some stories in “The Nightingales of Troy” are much more compelling (and better told) than others. Yet all have a trademark compassion that runs through generations.
After spending time with the Garrahans, you know that the Garrahans of the future will be just as conflicted, hopeful, tragic, witty and tough as nails as their predecessors.
You also will know that Alice Fulton is a writer who can provide the complicated pleasures of accomplished fiction.