Reflections: The Drowned Life

Jeff Ford's The Drowned Life doesn't work. Although at times fantastically innovative and, at others, truly insightful, the whole does not provide a satisfying reading experience. In many respects, Ford's strengths here create The Drowned Life's weakness; this is a man who comfortably writes in a range of styles from literary memoir to fantasy. While the variety of stories that Ford can bring to the table is impressive, it leaves the reader struggling to catch up. Instead of spending the first pages of each tale entering into its particular world, one must try to identify the most basic elements of that world's foundation (Is it a world in which magic can happen? Are its inhabitants human? Is this a dream?), and how they differ from the very different foundations of the story that came before. Under these circumstances, reading becomes an act of flipping through generic index cards in the mind rather than reveling in the details of the story's here and now. Generically-based collections of Ford's work would be more in the readers' interests to prevent the exhaustion and inattention produced by constant reorientation.

To criticize the whole is not, however, to dismiss the parts. There are several stories that hold a pleasure all their own, displaying their lights in spite of the difficulties of their context. The first of these is "Night Whiskey," a Gothic narrative about a small town that owns the secret of a magical potion of "death berries," which annually allows a handful of residents briefly to inhabit a domain somewhere between the land of the living and that of the dead. This extraordinary potion and the celebrations surrounding its use one year provide the excuse that one sixteen-year-old needs to leave behind the restrictions and oddities of small town America for the promise of personal growth and healthy nostalgia somewhere more cosmopolitan. Despite its magical premise, Ford excels in painting the day to day experience of living in a very small town. Through the narrator's eyes one sees and feels the comforts of the known and the resulting claustrophobia. These feelings are threaded through both the banal and the supernatural elements of the tale, each informing and reinforcing the other. Other stories of note include "Manticore Spell," a fantasy piece, and "The Way He Does it," a supernatural puzzle.

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