Dark and poignant, Down to a Sunless Sea is a short story collection that takes us inside the minds of various disturbed, lost souls. Freese is not afraid to show us the harsh reality and emptiness of the characters’ mediocre, dysfunctional lives, and he does it with insight and his unique sense of literary style.
My favorite stories were “Little Errands,” “Herbie,” and “Juan Peron’s Hands.”
In “Little Errands,” an obsessed man is tormented because he can’t remember if he mailed two letters, or if the letters were properly placed in the mailbox:
I mailed the two letters, one is a parking ticket, the other partial payment for new carpeting. Or so I thought. I’m not sure that I mailed them, although I did close the slot and opened it again to check. The letters were not there, or so I thought. I was in a rush. I opened and close the tray again. The letters were gone. When I returned to my car, I felt sure that I had mailed them. I think I mailed them. I was unsure and uncertain. I’m sure the letters didn’t fall outside the mailbox.
And so it goes on for a number of paragraphs. Readers will learn what it’s like to be inside a troubled mind.
In “Herbie,” a young boy tries to stand up to his abusive father. This is a heart-wrenching glimpse into psychological and physical abuse that almost brought tears to my eyes. In this segment, Herbie snaps after his father tells him, yet again, “You’re a shit.”
Herbie felt his heart beat against his chest as if it had been thrown against a stoop. He imagined himself a circus geek, like Tyrone Power in the movie Nightmare Alley, ripping apart live pigeons, chomping upon their plump bodies as reddened sparkles of feathers stuck out like stars from his bloodied mouth. Herbie stalked out of his bedroom with an add gait, having lost one slipper. He chased his father into the kitchen like a geek on the spoor of a half-devoured pigeon. He spied his father, bent over, his hands wiping the back seams of his shoes with a dishrag, his body looking now like that of a small animal, perhaps a bird.
Herbie lunged at his father’s throat with both hands and as he was pushed off he slid down to his father’s leg, grabbed it, and gnashed his teeth into his thigh and bit down as hard as he could. Having a rubbery consistency, the flesh made a strange appeal and he opened his mouth wider in order to effect a deeper and wider bite, and in the process his father smashed the shoe brush down upon his head repeatedly as if beating a snake to death.
“Juan Peron’s Hands” is nothing short of macabre. The narrator breaks into the crypt of the famous politician and, with a machete, cuts off the corpse’s hands, wraps them in foil, and puts each one inside a trouser pocket. Later on, at home, he places them on the kitchen table.
Placing both hands before me, I uncurled the gnarled fingers, so that each hand was like the hand of Jesus, our savior, in church, frozen in stained glass. I grabbed each hand individually with my own, an intense and prolonged grasp, my eyes closed, my arm and living fingers intertwined with Peron’s steely cold, and papery digits, once magically unavailable. And I was in control—of myself, as, at last. I was complete, in possession. I had regained me.
These are not traditional stories with a beginning, middle, and end; instead, they are keen snapshots of the characters—their troubled psyches, their trapped lives; yet we as readers are still able to form a complete picture of the characters. In this sense, the collection is a fine example of character studies. The author worked as a clinical social worker and a psychotherapist for twenty-five years, and this becomes evident when you read his work. Another aspect of the book which stands out is that it is versatile, in the sense that the fifteen stories are written in different styles: lyrical, journalistic, satiric, and morbid.
Down to a Sunless Sea offers a sad, if not cynical, view of humanity, so if you’re looking for a collection of light, upbeat tales, this isn’t the book for you. Also, in spite of being a short little book, I found it quite profound and in fact had to read some of the stories twice to grasp their full meaning. Because of this, I would say this is also a demanding read.
If you enjoy serious literary fiction that is insightful, emotionally touching, and intellectually challenging, I recommend you give this book a try.