Swim Back to Me

By Ann Packer

Knopf. 225 pp. $24.95

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Reviewed by Susan Balée


All summer I've been reading new fiction for an omnibus review to be published this fall. All summer I've been meeting characters with quirks (saints, savants, and jerks), exotic settings (from India to the South of France), poetry slumming as prose, narratives with verve, but nothing - until now - that really struck a nerve. Ann Packer's

Swim Back to Me

reminded me of why I fell in love with literature in the first place. Upon closing the book, I thought, "I'll read this again."

Packer, author of The Dive From Clausen's Pier, understands that all the great narratives are about love and loss. In "Molten," a mother grieves for a son, killed just as he was preparing to leave for college. Her secretive relief involves spending her days in his bedroom listening to his CD collection. Occasionally, hunger drives her out:

She fetched up in the kitchen, suddenly unsure of herself. Beached. The breakfast dishes, the toast crusts. . . . It was the same as yesterday, the same as the day before. It would be the same forever. An oppression of breakfast plates. That should be the collective noun, like a school of fish, a herd of cows.

Kathryn wishes, as do all of us mothers of teenagers, that she had not nagged her son so much. Her husband "would sigh and turn away if she said that to him. That she'd like to kill herself. He'd sigh and turn away if she said it, and she'd say it, so he'd sigh and turn away."

This story mixes the lyrics of real alt-rock bands (the Geraldine Fibbers, Violent Femmes, Jawbreaker) with the story's narrative. In this way, Packer's fictional composition echoes and counterpoints the musical composition. Language is how our species mediates the world, and Packer manages to show how it also mediates the relationships among members of a family, or between partners in a marriage. When everything else is lost, words - lyrics, letters, short stories - can still swim back to us and summon an emotional response.

In another thoughtful compositional choice, Packer bookends the collection with two linked novellas. The first offers us sketches of the main characters in 1972; the second shows them 40 years later, marked by time and experience.

The opener, "Walk for Mankind," is told from the point of view of Richard, a shy, nerdy eighth grader in Palo Alto. Richard's dad is a professor at Stanford; his mom has moved to Oakland to work with poor people. The story begins when Richard meets Sasha, a savvy East Coast girl whose father has a visiting professorship. Packer shows us scenes of family life at Richard's house and at Sasha's, and how, in that time and place, these kids cope with the emotional and professional problems of their parents:

I had my first taste of marijuana in a tiny park near our houses, the two of us sitting on adjacent swings that creaked every time we moved. I coughed, of course, and didn't feel a thing, but unlike fishing, smoking pot turned out to be something I was very good at, and each encounter with a joint told me exactly who I was, a guy who preferred the dazed-out float of a good high over everything else.

Richard learns some painful truths about women from Sasha and his own guilt-ridden mother, and it shapes his character. At the end of the book, we see what has happened to Sasha after 40 more years. She's still dancing an emotional duet with her father, Dan, a narcissist whose youthful charm has eroded. His witty sarcasm has become a querulous whine. Sasha's younger brother, however, is getting married and the scattered family is reassembling in California. Sasha narrates:

My father is not an easy person in the best of circumstances, but he's especially cantankerous when he has to see my mother. It's been thirty-five years since she left him, but I remember it vividly: his heartsick weeping, his enervation, his despair.

Sasha, middle-aged and divorced herself, finds herself mediating between her parents at the wedding reception. Whereas her mother has blossomed, her father resembles the canker on the rose.

"We've been talking," he tells her, "about regret." She waits. "And which is worse, guilt or humiliation. Which is it for you?" "Sorry, Dan," she says, "I'm not biting," and she heads off without a pause, without even a glance back at us.

Time doesn't heal all wounds, but it changes the behavior of those who carry them, and those who leave the scene of the wounding. Packer's stories stick with you.

Susan Balée's fiction chronicle will appear in the fall issue of the Hudson Review. She teaches in the Intellectual Heritage Department at Temple University.