On ‘Tauvernier Street,’ tales of people finding their way
Jay Atkinson’s new collection of short stories, “Tauvernier Street,’’ is full of tales of ordinary small-town New England folks: A few rise above their humble beginnings, but most struggle in, if not the downtroddeddom of Robert Stone characters, then lower-middle-classdom. Some are bakers, cops, or paint-store employees; other are butchers, ex-cons, or weary academicians. Whether they’re alcoholics, addicts, or recently divorced, they struggle to live their lives. They know their plight; they “wonder what the poor people are doing,’’ but even the younger characters know they are the poor people.
Aside from three of them, the stories by Atkinson, who teaches journalism at Boston University, depict small-town neighborhood life in the 1960s and in more recent decades. And you get the feeling, even when you’re not explicitly told so, that many of the characters grew up on Tauvernier or a street very much like it and that there’s really very little chance of truly breaking away.
In “The God of This World,’’ Bob Halloran, a “kid from Tauvernier Street’’ has risen up from heaps of the old neighborhood. Now, in post-9/11 America, he owns a development company. His plan to retire at 50 ends after a brief, but everlasting encounter with a Palestinian bomber at the local hardware store and results in a meditation on religion, politics, and fate.
The best stories, though, are nostalgic portrayals of neighborhoods like Tauvernier Street in the mythically simpler days when Yaz patrolled Fenway’s left field.
In the compassionate coming-of-age story “The Tex Cameron Show,’’ the narrator reminisces about his life as a 10-year-old who gets a robust dose of disappointment when he discovers his cowboy hero is not only just an actor, but also “a horse’s ass.’’ The 12-year old in “Two Mississippi’s’’ grows up in an ethnically changing area, where his father struggles to keep his butcher shop going, as “old shops and markets were being boarded up, and the people who were moving into the neighborhood ate mostly rice and beans.’’
Tauvernier’s residents aren’t just kids and their parents. Old Max Talbot’s unloving wife, Eleanor, waits for “the old buzzard’’ to die of cancer as he stares out at the Street.
And druggies and criminals populate Tauvernier, too. Cousin Eddie, a drug-addict and criminal, steals from his own family. “Latin Kings’’ portrays the neighborhood in a different era: it “starts from the gutter on Broadway, rising behind the abandoned houses and tenements.’’ Here, the narrator, a loner whose mother is three-quarters Dominican and whose dad’s name is O’Hara, bemoans: “So I’m not Puerto Rican; I’m nothing.’’ He combs the dangerous gang-infested neighborhood looking for his lowlife girlfriend.
But three stories don’t really fit in the same neighborhood with the others. One odd yarn portrays a maniacal professor who turns homicidal when denied the Will Durant Chair in the history department. In another story, an antique dealer, who makes his living buying the treasures of dying countries, finds himself in desperate trouble after buying an armorial crest at a steep discount from a relative of the Argentine president. A slimy cosmetic surgeon, in “The Landscape of Dr. Aboud,’’ hires henchmen to extract human growth hormone from recent accident victims.
Those three aren’t bad stories, but the collection would’ve been more cohesive with their omission. Atkinson’s characters aren’t quite as beaten down and desperate as Robert Stone’s, but they are finely and plainly drawn, and the book is worth reading for the universality of its often vivid portraits of small-town America.