Thomas Wolfe, author of “You Can’t Go Home Again,” had it all wrong. Author Jim Ray Daniels has been returning home in his short-story collections for a number of years.
His most recent collection, “The Luck of the Fall,” finds his characters reliving their glory days despite hardscrabble lives. There are tales of drinking in bars with names like the Alibi and Eight Miles High, screwing in the family van in the parking lot, unplanned pregnancies and attending a circus at the Michigan State Fairgrounds Coliseum in Detroit.
“We all have our imperfections,” the author said.
Daniels now lives in Pittsburgh, but he’s a Detroit native and returns often to visit his 95-year-old father.
“For his 95th birthday, I took him to his old neighborhood, and so many ghosts came back,” Daniels said.
Many of those ghosts may end up in future short-story collections. Daniels said he selects stories for his collections by looking for thematic similarities.
The author admits to having a dark sense of humor, which comes across with no ill will. His stories are fictionalized but have a ring of truth, and some of his high school friends and residents from his old neighborhood in Warren “might recognize things that happened,” he said.
“The Luck of the Fall” emerged when Daniels noticed many of his stories were about people’s downfalls. Some may call it bad luck, but then “a twist enables them to move forward,” he said.
In Daniels' short story “The Flying Wallendas,” the main character reveals he stole his brother’s wife, Peggy, while he was in Texas looking for work. That story is used as a backdrop to describe the couple’s current life, trudging through with no safety net but making it work. Speaking of a lack of safety nets, the reader learns about the Flying Wallendas’ tragedy at the State Fairgrounds Coliseum in 1962, when two members of the circus group fell to their death during a performance.
In another story, “Heart Attack Bear,” Daniels writes about a group of friends who get together once a year at Christmas. He said the story brings out the complexity of life and all its ups and downs, but there’s still a true-to-life character who eschews microbrews with “names like Devil’s Aardvark or some other nonsense.”
The character, Bear, asks, “You got any regular beer?” He settles for a Miller Lite. “Ordering a light beer is a joke on myself, but at least it wasn’t some hoppy crap. I was against trends of all sorts. I was trending anti-trending,” Bear says.
The annual reunion takes a turn when a couple of old cheerleaders show up, including Bear’s former wife. According to Bear, she “left him one week after she complained that her underwear smelled like potato chips.”
Hey, it proves everyone has their guardrails — even in Warren, which doesn’t have a downtown area even though it’s Michigan’s third-largest city.
“Downtown is where the auto plants are,” Daniels said.
Daniels has kept busy since his retirement from the English department at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University. He’s been working on short films as well as nonfiction essays for Belt Magazine, which covers the Rust Belt and other parts of the Midwest.
“My first one is about swimming pools, swing sets and trees,” he said, explaining how those things distinguish identical tract houses from one another.
He’s also happy to be working as a professor in Alma College’s low-residency master of fine arts program. It’s a familiar setting since he completed his undergraduate degree at the university.
“I needed to get out of Detroit. I had developed some bad habits,” he said.
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