Nathan Leslie
Root and Shoot

Texture Press

Reviewer: Ace Boggess

          Reading Root and Shoot, Nathan Leslie’s newest collection of short stories, is like taking a quick glimpse inside the minds of all the strangers one might pass on the sidewalk during a given day. These people have their distinct memories, fears, heartbreaks, hopes, worries, and personality quirks, and Leslie catalogs these things in brief, tightly-packed tales. The book begins simply enough with a swim in the lake and leads the reader in many directions, through crumbling towns and broken homes, onto tennis courts, and along the sidewalks where a mourning jogger runs to free himself from his suffering and loss.

          This is Leslie’s ninth collection. It contains works that have appeared in such prestigious journals as Boulevard, Cimarron Review,and Shenandoah. Of the fifty-two stories in Root and Shoot, the majority are short-shorts, two to three pages long, with a few shorter still. While this would seem to violate Aristotle’s rule that a piece should never be too brief to allow the mind time to focus, Leslie nonetheless pulls it off with poetic flare. He artfully describes scenes and, with both humor and melancholy, captures the absurd ways people think.  In “I Hear You,” for example, a woman discusses both her flaws and those of the man with her at the moment, as well as her inability to find love:

          I’ve determined if I’m not married by forty I’m marrying myself. I’ll give myself a ring, go to the JOP, whisk myself on a honeymoon—somewhere sticky, tropical. It will be magic. I don’t care.

          Likewise, in “Out at Wakefield,” the narrator discusses his coping with being laid off from work. Here, the character’s thoughts are so clearly and accessibly presented that readers will immediately recognize a part of themselves:

The first week all I could do was sit around and watch my old movies on videotape. Something about watching these grainy flicks was a comfort. The color seemed washed-out. The hair was big and out of style. I just let the films bleed into each other.

          I ate vast quantities of Orville Redenbacher’s, drank Canada Dry to settle my stomach. After two movies the day would still only be half over. Now what? I’d think. Now what?

          Leslie utilizes misdirection, too, managing to create subtle, powerful plot twists (or thought twists), all the shrewder because the reader has no time to anticipate them. In the two pages of “The Make Out Club,” young students use a game like Two Minutes in Heaven to cope with the aftermath of a school shooting. Or, in “A Federal Case,” the narrator uses his dislike for certain holidays such as Columbus Day and President’s Day to show his wife’s misguided belief he is having an affair with his assistant.

          Having clever narratives and detailed depictions of the inner workings of a character’s mind all packed into such tiny works of fiction, one might expect that Leslie has sacrificed other aspects of storytelling—descriptions, perhaps. Not so. He depicts settings and images as smoothly as thoughts. In “The Drippage,” for example, Leslie tells the story of a man recently left by his wife. The narrator then forms an unusual bond with the young woman who lives in an apartment in his building. Despite the complexity of this story, the narrator never fails to describe his surroundings:

          Living in an efficiency above a used music store is only temporary, I know. Still, I have redecorated—sans my landlord’s permission—with technology. Flat screen TV. Refrigerator with e-mail. Sconces that dim automatically. Recessed speakers in the walls. This also helps drown out the hip-hop they blast from ten to eight every day. I don’t mind this—in small doses. Everything in my place buzzes and rattles. Even when they close up shop and turn off the tuneage my apartment still hums, as if a vacuum cleaner rests underneath. Denise lives in our old four bedroom overlooking the lake.

          Leslie puts so much into these stories that a reader might be surprised when they have opened and ended so quickly. In fact, if there is any flaw in the book, it is that at times the pacing seems too fast. Readers might require many breaks throughout the collection’s 259 pages in order to process what has taken place. Otherwise, the stories move at such speed that they might seem to blur together. Even so, Root and Shoot proves well worth the time and effort. It touches on themes of jealousy, loss, poverty, alienation, and overcoming. There is even a section of the book that deals with being a writer and the effects of that not only on the writer’s life but also on those lives that intersect. In “The Mirror,” for example—one of the strongest and most brutal stories in the book—Leslie depicts the life of Jordan Schuster, a relative unknown, who is so caught up in his ill-fated efforts to achieve greatness that he barely notices his wife Glenda, the one person who makes his writer’s life possible and worth living: “Glenda was nothing more than a pleasant distraction, Jordan thought, a human condiment.”

          All in all, Root and Shoot turns out to be a wonderful collection. The stories provide much to consider and more to visualize. While they, perhaps, should be read only a couple at a time, all are worth entertaining. They effortlessly reveal what it means to be human. One might suspect that every scene is based on something true, and that suspicion in itself demands that each piece be mined for clues.

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