The stories in Patrick Egan's new collection, "In All the Wrong Places," are an unsettling, emotionally fraught mix of memoir and fiction. The seventeen pieces are arranged around a central essay -- reprinted from a 1999 issue of Adirondac -- in which Egan remembers sharing a "particular and dreadful fear..." at being lost near Long Pond with his brother, Chris.
The whole collection is deeply informed by memories of Chris, who died in 1995. Egan calls his brother "the protagonist" and "my mentor and my backwoods guide," and recalls him saying, "The Adirondacks is all about death."
While that attitude is up for debate, Egan has taken it to heart in his most recent collection, which follows his historical novel "Standing Stone (2012)" and a memoir, "An American in Dorset (2013)."
"In All the Wrong Places" is a surprising book, with strong illusions about what kind of stories belong between the same two covers. Egan calls it a "mixed bag," and I'd agree: every story feels like knocking on the neighbor's door, hoping for Snickers but expecting Charles Manson to pop out.
Though the stories are disjointed and surreal, they cohere firmly around the archetypal outsider. His most convincing characters could have been imagined by Camus - the only virgin in his dormitory pressured into a brothel, a man watching a group of students chase a sheep to death, a child tortured by memories of tipping gravestones.
The collection opens with a wistful "Dear John" fairy tale, raw with rejection and loneliness despite its rhetorical distance. "Many years had to pass," it concludes, "before the young man would live happily ever after."
However, the subsequent stories do more to illustrate the ever afterlife. Egan's narrative voice is one of a confused spirit, wandering a painful past and occasionally erupting in a private rage or brooding fantasy. Egan structures these outbursts as pieces of short fiction interspersed with his memoir.
The more fanciful stories introduce us to ghosts, a mountain nymph, and Stonecipher the gnome. But many of the pieces recast stories of simple melancholy onto a stage of strange and forbidden fantasy. Egan shames even the darkest fantasies of the Grimm Brothers - an honest-to-Eve succubus, a high-school girl abducted by a late-night radio host, or thousands of undead, skinned rodents devouring a town of religious conservatives.
Egan uses a declarative tone in his memory vignettes, though he tends toward the passive voice. While hackneyed constructions like "breath-taking peaks," or "the presence of death that dwelt in each mountain pass" can pass for affectation in the fiction, they are revealed in the earnest memoirs to be Egan's native mode of experience. The central story ("Lost") is the only piece to achieve internal closure -?Egan drops the curtain on the rest of his scenes too early, leaving truncated attempts at narrative arc.
These snippets coax us through a peripatetic tour of Egan's memory, returning always to the Adirondacks as a particularly nuanced landscape of death and regret. As he admits, "So here I am. ... unable to find the peace these mountains once promised me."
While Egan may have given up on peace, he does occasionally discover beauty.
"I believe he's everywhere," Egan says of his brother in the book's final lines, "... the raindrops, year-wood cells of the cedar forests and the silt of the river bottoms. And, someday far into the future, perhaps a part of him will lodge among those blue-green crystals of the Opalescent River. Non semper erit aestas."
For those of us who don't speak Latin, that's something akin to "Winter's coming" - a customized conclusion for a persona who states "I stare at the rain. I walk through the fog. I wander old and forgotten cemeteries."
While Egan may have lost his way in the collection, that's partially the point. "In All the Wrong Places" revels in the bleak sensations of uncertainty and humiliating disorientation. If you pick up a copy, prepare to be blindfolded and pushed into a dark and unknown forest. It's a hell of a trip.
This review reflects the individual view of the reviewer, not the views of the Adirondack Center for Writing or the Enterprise.