“Why is everything hidden?”
This question, spoken by the father of the young narrator in Joe Neal’s short story, “Darker the Next Day,” refers ostensibly to the office supplies the man wants to take from his house to his office, where he has just been promoted off the assembly line. But the question has broader connotations for the son, Jake, who might be old enough to perceive the darker currents carrying his family, but is too young to make sense of them.
The story appears in the new issue of Superstition Review, founded and based at Arizona State. Neal, an Ohioan writer with more fiction forthcoming in Salamander, shows an impressive dedication to the young protagonist’s perspective. Jake, of course, is unaware that a literary story is taking place around him; he’s just as happy to talk about playing like a ninja as about his parents’ relationship. But pay attention to the way Neal tells us about this family through Jake’s thoughts on seemingly minor things:
“There was a show on about people trying to escape the police by driving fast. No one was good at it because they all ended up wrecking [. . .] The same thing happened over and over, just in different places. It took away the good feeling I got from the box of chicken. It made you think everyone was losing their minds.”
If you laughed reading that, you’re not alone. But the humor isn’t cheap–as the story demonstrates throughout, Neal works with a balanced perspective on small town struggle. Life is hilarious; life is pitiful.
With its moody, uncommunicative principals, hard-luck milieu, and clipped, direct syntax, the obvious touchstone here is Raymond Carver. In fact, I’m reminded of one of my favorite stories, “Nobody Said Anything,” which came as close to changing my life as a short story ever has when I read it at sixteen. Like that piece, “Darker the Next Day” accomplishes the trick of communicating more about domestic damage than its narrator intends or even realizes. That’s why, at first glance, the prose can strike you as straightforward and uncomplicated. And why, at second glance, you can appreciate the command of craft and exquisite control it must have taken to achieve that effect.
“Darker the Next Day,” along with the rest of Superstition Review #12, is free online. Read it here.