Review: What We Build Upon Ruins

'The teeth were small, but sharp. They pierced the skin and sank in deep to the bone. Jackson had to restrain an immense cry of pain. Every fiber of his body commanded him to loosen his grip, to give up. But Jackson told himself: I will not let go. I will not let go. I will not let go.'

"Coyote City", p.59

in 'What We Build Upon Ruins

By Giano Cromley

Tortoise Books, Sept 2017.

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When we think of ruins, we think of things past. We imagine crumbling architecture or the after-village of an earthquake’s re-modelling. We think static, something we can only clean up and build upon. However, in Cromley’s ‘What We Build Upon Ruins’, the ruins are still in a state of mid-crumble. They are human shaped, moving from place to place searching for ways to rebuild themselves and prevent their ultimate ruin. An all-male cast of protagonists find themselves in failing marriages, dead-end jobs, lives they never asked for and families they can’t help. These angry men walk on cracking legs, with their hands breaking apart and their faces growing brittle with each false smile. These are Cromley’s ruins.

This debut collection brings together eleven short stories, each explores people who have been broken. Often the cause is clear, whereas other protagonists don’t necessarily feel broken but they know they are lacking in some way. They are beginning to feel the cracks. The first titular story is in fact one of three linked stories that tie the book together, with “Human Remains” in the middle and “The Physics of Floating” at the end. These three stories are told through the eleven-year-old narrator Jack, who is a surprisingly realistic child character. The story itself is told in the past tense by a much older Jack, but the dialogue and actions of the child-Jack and his younger brother Marty feel very real. For example, when Marty feels scared he will find a cardboard box – or the next best thing – to hide in, because the smell and feel of the box reminds him of the good times.

The two boys and their parents decide to spend “several weekends during the summer of 1989 making a birchbark canoe on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula” (p.11). It is obvious at the beginning that the family are trying to recover from some kind of tragedy. It is only revealed as we continue through the triad of tales that Colette, Jack’s sister, drowned in the swimming pool in a freak accident two years prior.

There are two stories in Cromley’s collection that focus on ‘family’ as a unit, this three-in-one story and ‘Boy in the Bubble’. ‘Boy in the Bubble’ is about a failing marriage between Paul and Trina Corbin, whose son is camping in the back garden and refuses to come back inside the house. All the other stories deal with an all-male cast of protagonists who are, despite being married or having children, essentially alone. They are isolated from their loved ones, if any, and they are fighting solo for a way back to happiness. I would argue none of these men have a ‘happy ending’ or a positive resolution. Whereas ‘What We Build Upon Ruins/Human Remains/The Physics of Floating’ and ‘Boy in the Bubble’ do end in a ‘stable’ and hopeful way. What has been built upon the ruins stands tall with stronger foundations. While both endings are ambiguous as to what actually takes place beyond the final word, the characters are put into a situation where they presented with the opportunity to turn their lives around. Paul and Trina are put in a situation that will save their marriage, Jack’s family are working together and looking towards a future they can believe in. It could be argued that Cromley is promoting the family unit as one of the few environments that can survive tragedy, whether it is the death of a child or the breakdown of a marriage.

Broken relationships, marriages or otherwise, is certainly a strong theme throughout this collection, specifically regarding two people’s inability to communicate. In “A Stormy Night”, the unnamed narrator and his partner Chloe listen to the arguments of the Norwood’s, their upstairs tenants, while neglecting their own relationships and wilfully ignoring their own problems. They take the opposing sides of the Norwood’s arguments, attacking each other with words borrowed from the marriage upstairs. While in “Those Who Trespass” Vince Pease dreads his wife’s voice and instead of going home to their arranged dinner, plays detective by investigating the disappearance of a young student whose diary he found in the college toilets (and read). “Homefront” also presents a husband and wife who can’t speak honestly to each other. Monty has gone to take care of his dead mother’s house, while Maura has stayed behind to tend to their son Dillon, who is sick with a fever. These couples cannot find a mutual resolution, they each have different priorities and cannot conceive a mutual resolution.

For me, there a two ‘sister stories’ in this collection, “Coyote in the City” and “Eureka, California”. In the former, meet Ellis Jackson, a once-profitable roofing supplier who, thanks to a prolonged slump in the housing market, had to take a job with Billings City Parks Department as a refuse collector to keep up his mortgage payments. He becomes enraged when he reads how wild animals living in the city are being put down. In “Eureka, California”, meet Lewis Montgomery Lapin, or ‘Trigger’ to most, who has run away to the small town of Eureka so he can get away from his LA past. He has only been there a month, but one day decides to visit his old life and remember ‘the good times’.

In many ways these stories are two sides of the same coin. Both men are involved in physical, low-pay jobs, however Ellis respects the rules while Trigger deliberately stretches and breaks them. Ellis never once blames anyone for his financial decline, while Trigger blames everyone but himself, even going so far as to break the rear-view mirror of his company truck so he won’t see himself there. Ellis is striving to fight on and declares he “will not let go” (p.59) repeatedly in the closing paragraph. Whereas Trigger is forced to let go of his old life when he can’t face up to his own demons and his past. They have both been robbed of their old lives, but only Ellis has the moral fibre to keep going.

Cromley’s prose is very simple and unpretentious. With this simplicity, he subtly creates characters of depth and complexity. The atmosphere is generally melancholic, each tale is filled with intense emotion and struggles that are very real. I can almost compare it as a brother-volume to Alex Behl’s ‘Planet Grim’, whose predominantly female characters go through their own hardships in such clear, crisp, simple prose.

My only criticism would be the placement of “Ling”, a story about the breaking down relationship of two friends, one of whom is desperate to restore some good into his life. While the story itself is excellent, I felt it was a little out of place with the rest of the collection. This is possibly due to the point of view shift, as this story is not told from the suffering Chuck but Sammy who is witnessing his friend’s ruin from the outside. While I enjoyed the interesting shift, I felt it was a little out of place.