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Book Review: Why the Long Face – a Collection of Stories by Ron MacLean

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This weekend I attended my third craft fair of the season. I do love these events, although what I love is not necessarily the same faux bayberry and pine wreathes that I might have bought seven years ago, or even the oh-so-adorable lampshade cover that I bought last year. Don’t get me wrong, those items – along with the doll clothes, pet kerchiefs, and wooden roses – are usually beautifully crafted and well marketed.

They are just not always my thing.

I’m starting to appreciate new and different things, a startling use of the color pink on a hand-painted silk scarf, a butter-soft leather tote bag, something that just grabs me and pulls me towards it. It’s all good you see. The artistic vision and technique found in these pieces give just as much beauty as in a classic framed photograph of Rockport, MA’s Motif #1, or a wood carved chess set.

Ron MacLean is an artist who knows what he’s doing. He asks you to trust that he will tell you a story. He asks you to trust that there’s a good chance you’ll take away more than you imagined. Not every story in Why the Long Face is for all tastes, they weren’t all mine. Yet each one offers beauty.

“Las Vegas Wedding” plays like a recurring dream, a surreal snowball of nonlinear narrative, gradually rolling, forwards – and then backwards, adding layers of situations and characters – like Gertrude Stein of all people.

There are similar stories, surreal from the get-go. And some, begin more conventionally.

In “Aerialist”, newly widowed Nick learns that his five-year-old daughter, Katie, can walk with amazing calm and precision over unexpected heights. Nick is stunned when it’s two feet off the ground in the living room; he’s shocked when she maneuvers a second floor stair railing with ease. And the dichotomy here is not blatant; we know five-year-old children do not have that kind of skills that Katie continues to exhibit. But MacLean allows us to accept what’s happening – we feel only as much doubt and fear as Nick does – nothing more.

Ron MacLean earned a BS in journalism at Boston University, and received a Doctor of Arts degree in narrative and narrative theory from the University of Albany, SUNY. He’s a former executive director of Grub Street, a creative writing center in Boston. He has contributed to Inc., Fortune Small Business, and The Boston Phoenix, and his fiction has been published in GQ, Greensboro Review, Prism International, and Night Train. MacLean received the Frederick Exley Award for Short Fiction, and he’s had multiple Pushcart Prize nominations. His novel Blue Winnetka Skies was published in 2004.

MacLean mixes fact with fiction; he borrows from history and creates an alternative biography of sorts for the real life 17th-century polymath Gottfried Leibniz. From the story, “The Encyclopedia of (Almost) all the Knowledge in the World”, Leibniz envisions, and then embarks on a project to accumulate, tabulate, and disseminate the entire world’s knowledge.

Again, in “Strange Trajectory: A Story of Phineas Gage”, MacLean relates the factual occurrences of September 13, 1848, the date when Gage, a railroad foreman, was struck through the head with a three and a half foot tamping iron, and lived. Yes, that’s through; the iron rod was reported to have landed about 80 feet away. “Strange Trajectory” is how MacLean imagines Gage’s recuperation from the bizarre injury.

Why the Long Face has repeating themes of relationships, between fathers and daughters, husbands and wives, men and their friends, and man and God. But the common thread in each, even the most fantastic of the lot, is that of the reality of human action and emotion. MacLean’s characterizations feel not only real, but recognizable – pulled from our dysfunctional families, quirky co-workers, and of course, the frailty in ourselves: “As it became increasingly clear the task Leibniz had set for himself was impossible, the naysayers among us begun to snicker with the self-righteousness of the safe, of people who never take risks and scoff at those who do.”

Simply put, MacLean inspires the artist in all of us to take more risks.

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