In Trebor Healey’s short story, “Ghost,” included in his newly released collection, Falling, the protagonist states, “Often, I think most of my closest friends are dead writers. I talk to them all the time and they talk to me-through their books mostly. But through my dreams as well. Sometimes.” Inspired by writer Roberto Bolaño, among others, Healey’s protagonist travels to Mexico, embarking “on a pilgrimage to meet the master.” He writes, “Darshan, the Hindus call it, when you spend time with one of your teachers.”

With his sixth book of fiction, Healey is, thankfully, not a dead writer. He is, though, a writer who continues to demonstrate mastery and, therefore, teach. Falling is many things: queer, academic, political, and comedic. Most resonant, Healey’s stories are hopeful.

Numerous themes and settings bind this diverse ten-story gathering. The concept of borders, both literal and metaphorical, punctuate several offerings. “The Fallen Man” is the tale of a man who mysteriously falls off a hotel balcony in Acapulco. “He was just one of hundreds of tourists who fall each year…due to the country’s notoriously-low balcony railings,” Healey writes. With a police captain, swarms of butterflies and a wily bellhop, Healey creates a world where players are boxed in, trapped in their own mess. Readers are left to wonder if, perhaps, true freedom is just over the railing? In “Nogales,” Rick, an immigration attorney continues to nurse the wounds of a recent, middle-aged breakup. Healey writes, “I wondered if all of us have a certain amount of joy, like a certain amount of breaths, or heart-beats, or hard-ons, and when we run out, that’s it and we can only go on by augmenting with some sort of medication like Viagra, statins or insulin…” One afternoon in Mexico, Rick is almost run down by an erratic driver. Instead of merely helping another client, Rick helps himself, finding new possibilities beyond the U.S. border.

Falling also explores familial loss. In “Abilardo and Rodrigo,” The main character’s wife and son were killed in a tragic plane crash. The author writes, “Sometimes a water glass would remind me of her, or both of them-a shirt, a painting, an umbrella, or even a footstool.” Awash in grief, he periodically flees to Mexico. The protagonist, Guillermo, tells readers, “Here the dead are like other people-there are lots of skeletons, and they do everything we do: laughing, painting their faces, killing each other, living and dying. The big ugly wall, like our own border, between life and death is rent.” He begins to volunteer at a refugee house and meets two young brothers desperate for education, guidance and love. Charming them with the promise of coloring books, Guillermo eventually becomes much more than a volunteer. The piece, “Spirited Away,” follows Vic, “a minor bi-polar case” and “a minor painter.” In another custodial outburst, he takes his thirteen-year-old son, Henry, to Mexico for summer break to help him “understand ancient cultures.” While perusing a massive marketplace, Henry pulls from his father’s grip saying, “Dad, I’m not a little kid and you don’t have to hold my hand.” Vic replies, “I just don’t want to lose you, Henry. Maybe you’re holding my hand. Think of it like that.” Somehow, though, Henry does disappear, vanishing in the foreign landscape. Amid devastation, Healey prompts readers to consider the question, “how did it come to this?”

Argentina is the setting for a pair of standout pieces in Falling. In “A Geography of Plants,” readers meet Camila, a former member of the ERP, a “Guerilla group with a solid Marxist ideology…who were vaguely socialist and increasingly undisciplined.” After finding love with a fellow painter, Camila becomes pregnant and is imprisoned in the Dirty War. Many years later, she transforms her life, becoming a nun. She says, “It’s given me the opportunity to be of service with less odds of getting killed…I saw the church as my best opportunity to live a meaningful life attempting to right wrongs. I don’t agree with everything the church does, certainly, but I do appreciate that it uses a lot of its resources to bring relief to the poor, and it is allowed to. I’m still an atheist.” After meeting a young American, her past comes barreling back. Can she, once again, bury the rage and heartache that life has given her? “The Orchid” is a sprawling, gorgeous story that unfolds among the Argentinian political landscape. Felipe is “a political operative, a kingmaker” and campaign producer of sorts. With his sights on Senator Peña, a young, enthusiastic and openly gay candidate, Felipe has visions of creating a modern- day version of Juan and Eva Peron. Enter Evo, a handsome, twenty-something dancer. Felipe begins, like a puppeteer, to craft the destinies of these two men. Healey writes, “And here I was coupling two beautiful people once again, in order to create something else. Playing God. Well, what is an artist? I was either insane or brilliant, or just grief-sick and desperate. A ghost.” “The Orchid” plays with dirty politics, flailing egos and the fall of manufactured kings.

Falling is a sturdy, well-crafted collection of fiction. Healey’s characters are, in fact, plummeting. They cope with myriad misfortunes yet, guided by the author, always find some sense of vindication. In the coming of age story, “Rite of Passage,” Healey’s free-spirited protagonist asks his dying father, “…you were telling me to stop believing that there was a dog at my heels. To be the dog, right?” In Falling, life is hard. In real life, life is hard too. True masters, true teachers, they give us a little bit of hope. With Falling, Trebor Healey does so.

 

Falling
By Trebor Healey
University of Wisconsin Press
Paperback, 9780299324704, 272 pp.
September 2019

 

 



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