Field Trip (2022), by James Fowler

Fowler, a literature professor at the University of Central Arkansas, Conway, sets his stories in the mid-South of Texas, Tennessee, and Arkansas. The title story is a road story featuring a bright twelve-year-old named Reed, who, because his mom and dad have split up, and because he’s physically threatened at school, steals his dad’s car and heads north. Reed wants some attention. He wants his distracted father to talk to him. He’d never get away with his adventure—there’s a comic almost-encounter with a state trooper in Arkansas—but for the quick thinking of Raylene, a dauntless young ne’er-do-well who pretends to be Reed’s mother. The two sally forth into Missouri, both of them straightening things out a little, with Reed getting the parenting he yearns for, and Raylene finding someone to mother.

Reed’s a middle-class kid and mostly the ordinary middle-class is Fowler’s subject. But “the ordinary is exhausting when really looked into,” as the character in “Undertow” notes. After two miscarriages, she’s having a hard time finding the sanity zone. Her husband worries she’s suicidal. Drifting through her day, listless but attentive to news stories of child abductions, she at last finds herself on a quiet beach. Like an angel of mercy, a lost child wanders her way, and it’s surprising, Fowler seems to argue, how deeply compassion is imprinted in the consciousness even of a disassociated, profoundly depressed woman.  

There are thirteen stories in Fowler’s collection, gathered from years of work. Several portray how ordinary people—a factory worker, in “Flight,” and an up-and-coming family, in “Season of the Witch”—dealt with the Great Recession, when jobs disappeared, stores boarded up, and the American Dream turned into a sullen nightmare.

One story, “The Town,” is not a story in the conventional sense, but the satirical account of a high school project to model a town. “Our town” is as middle class as Thornton Wilder, but it’s not utopia and eventually gets corrupted by small-mindedness, or smug smalltownedness, and can only be purified with fire. Out of fire, the boosterish narrator claims, will come something better, but that better thing seems a lot like the old thing, sharply constricted by the Chamber of Commerce.

Fowler’s darkest story, and most disturbing critique of the middle class, is “Curb Appeal,” in which a young man, Trent, embraces a sort of madness after his father is sent to prison for embezzlement and his mother runs off with a rich guy. As a science experiment, Trent gradually turns his parents’ fancy house into an indoor garden, burning up wood work and knocking out skylights to allow his jungle to grow. Still, he’s careful to maintain the house’s presentation to the street, so no one will interfere. Though Trent doesn’t seem angry, his indoor garden is an almost nihilistic repudiation of his parents’ hyypocisy. He’s an accelerant to the ruin, a mad scientist tooling up for the apocalypse.

To my mind, Fowler’s most perfectly formed story is “Natchez,” featuring a middle-class woman, Peggy, married to a kindly perfectionist, an engineer who plans their activities in minute detail. Sometimes, in sheer frustration, Peggy makes alternative plans, but her husband’s plans always turn out to be more thoughtful, taking into account Peggy’s desires more than she herself would have. Peggy bargained for this very thing, but it has grown wearisome:

What kind of life did Peggy Lane Culp, never the belle of the ball, foresee with such a man? She knows she wasn’t a girl of any special talent or interest. Was it only vanity to think exciting and new things would somehow come as her due? And if she can’t call her years with Don unhappy ones, why is she gradually growing desperate?

Don and Peggy tour the antebellum homes of Natchez, a bland, middle-class thing to do. Somehow Peggy ends up on a riverboat, pushing quarters into slot machines, and misses various cues to disembark. In a beautifully-crafted ending, Peggy waves at hapless Don as the boat heads downriver—they’ll meet again, of course, but the scene shows the precariousness of settled, middle-class life, which without warning can sail away into the unknown. The story is reminiscent of Raymond Carver’s “The Compartment,” in which an American on a French train suddenly realizes he doesn’t know where he’s going, except that it won’t be good. Peggy is like that man, but there’s a wry optimism to Fowler, too. Maybe, somewhere downriver, Peggy will find her “exciting and new things,” after all. Her hope, to wring meaning out of the fearsome nothingness, is universal.