The biggest music fans of Gen-X were also some of the biggest fuck-ups: the struggling, the wounded, the ones who couldn’t get their acts together. Those without the words to express turmoil leaned on the sentiments of others, passing mixtapes like currency to patch and convey, to cover and compensate. It’s no surprise, then, that two bisecting tributaries – music and trouble– cut through the heart of Constance Squires’ new short story collection Hit Your Brights, pouring into the same emotional pool.
In an interview I did with Squires a while back, she mentioned that Ray, the protagonist of her sophomore novel Live From Medicine Park was “gently unreliable.” In that book, filmmaker Ray shoots the comeback of a musician who melted down on live television, derailing her career. He’s pledged not to interfere with the action he films, yet he actively meddles in the singer’s personal life throughout. The novel’s resonance comes through Ray stripping away layers of bullshit to reveal the staging which he’s used to justify his hypocrisy.
Throughout her new collection, Squires uses a similar tactic, but in a more compressed fashion, making for more explosive reads. She is a master of depicting self-delusion. The characters in her stories are often at crossroads of their own making, reckoning with the choices they made (or failed to), or, alternately, constructing flimsy alternate realities in which their squanders and failures remain untapped and viable. The gaps in these characters’ metacognition is evident to readers, as is the emotional granite through which reality cannot, will not flow. The protagonist of the collection’s title track is a case study: throughout, she pledges to have only a single drink this time. Expertly picked details show readers how dire the situation really is: the liquor store calls the protagonist when sales happen; she knows (or thinks she knows) exactly how long checks need to clear and how much leeway she has before getting paid next weekend, how much plasma her body can afford to lose. In Squires’ expert hands this spiraling descent to rock bottom – and an unexpected luminance at story’s end – is fresh. Like so many of Flannery O’Connor’s stories, a moment of grace arrives at an unexpected moment and upends everything that happened previously.
Squires’ stories are full of such unexpected moments, often coming in or around circumstances related to music. Sometimes we see Squires write to songs as much as about them: in “Live Through This,” a roommate Tess borrows a truck to get a new social security card. Lauren and Keith feel a thunderous shockwave cut through the normal morning domestica and turn on the TV: there’s been an explosion at the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City – where Tess was headed to get her card. “Division Bell” finds Nick Sanders at a Pink Floyd show, staring at a stranger holding a sign bearing Nick’s name. Nick’s estranged wife won’t be using her ticket, the guy with the sign says – but later, Nick runs into her at the concession stand.
Throughout, Squires is also deft in her depictions of working class characters and the ways in which the mind can place limits on potential. In “Wounding Radius,” Hannah receives a full track scholarship to the University of Connecticut which is pulled when she gets busted selling weed to classmates. She returns home to Oklahoma, where she and her friend Iris continue their dealings. They uncover a trove of stolen military weapons in their selling spot, hidden there by an AWOL veteran. Squires puts us in both characters’ heads, creating tension and revealing Hannah’s gradual realization of her squander. Iris, who has less natural ability, still regards Hannah’s could-have-been-a-contender status as more than she’ll ever have, leading her to hook up with the AWOL soldier to compensate.
Each story in Hit Your Brights includes characters who feel familiar, yet take unexpected turns. Through her dialogue, details and sympathetic eye, Constance Squires brings these characters to life. In the spotlight she shines on them, sometimes they escape their circumstances. Other times, they’re trapped in own small circles of light. The joy of reading these stories is watching each illumination unfold.
Hit Your Brights
by Constance Squires
University of Oklahoma Press; 172 pages