In these five stories John Fulton portrays how we live, love, and die. The answer to all three: with great difficulty.
Fulton’s project is to show authenticity in all its excruciating forcefulness. As one of his stories is boldly called “Real Grief,” it’s clear he isn’t shy about this. His psychological realism is so finely tuned as to intimately acquaint the reader with his characters in all their complexity—a real triumph for the short story form. While these stories are only snapshots of moments in their lives, we get a complete sense of who they are, how they got there, and where they may be going. We meet several full, completely rounded characters in these stories—something which often can’t be achieved in whole novels. These men and women, either middle-aged or in their teens, are not broken souls, or dead souls, or any other stereotypical “people in need of help.” They’re normal and healthy (for the most part), but have somehow worked themselves into dysfunctions solidified by the rut of everyday living.
These characters are so complex thanks to Fulton’s incredible economy of prose and subtle style. Not a sentence is wasted, and each is packed with quiet, thorough understanding. The result is pages of passages where all you can say is, “this is absolutely the way this would happen.” He doesn’t just nail dialogue, but the awkward space of communication outside of speech as well: “He wanted her to agree. He wanted her to say something equally fake and cheerful, but she didn’t.” While these people may experience isolation, they’re constantly in communication, with their bodies, faces, and actions; these are social environments filled with subtlety and subtext, which successfully convey the astounding complexity of how we interact with each other.
This quietude is one of Fulton’s main tools. He isn’t interested in grand sentences or dramatic eloquence. He cares little for crafting an entire world with a thick atmosphere which conveys heavy emotions. Instead, he uses a lighter, more charming approach. Characters are set in our world. While they live in Ann Arbor, that’s beside the point. Little space is given to setting so characterization can take center stage; but this admission of setting in a world which follows our rules is the first layer of Fulton’s stunning naturalism.
Next, his sentences are graceful but abrupt. They aren’t the most quotable of lines, but when grouped in paragraphs, they come to life. Fulton’s basic unit of meaning and emotional resonance is the paragraph, not the sentence. His quiet sentences interact to become full-bodied moments. Not only does this feel realistic (we think in moments, not sentences), but it’s highly economical. Fulton can evoke a full range of emotion without burdening each of his sentences with it, in the same way that his characters live meaningful lives even if each moment isn’t crushed with significance. Hence at the same time we get a sense of their banal daily lives as if we knew them personally—which novels rarely do and stories almost can’t at all—while also seeing the obstacles they must confront. This isn’t to say Fulton’s writing is devoid of poetic qualities, just that he has accomplished something more important for prose: authentic characters who are significant not just for what they show us about ourselves, but because they themselves are real.
Another boon to Fulton’s prose is the general absence of sentimentality. We don’t care about his characters because they’re struggling, but because they’re real. There are no heroes in these stories; while no one is guilty of evil, they all have flaws and all make wrong choices. More impressive still is that these flaws feel entirely authentic, which is not the case in a great deal of writing, where the author seems to give characters flaws just so we may say they aren’t perfect. When these people make really wrong choices, we feel their self-loathing as much as they do.
This incredibly personal naturalism will speak differently to different readers, in part because it captures people at two complete different (though as we learn, not separate) points in their lives. Fulton is a master of mid-life crises and teen angst, and his parent-child relationships provide ample clues about what made these people who they are and what directions they may take as they grow. In the end, the failures of both these age groups (as well as their successes—this book isn’t bleak in the least, though does have its somber moments, particularly as it artfully deals with death) will all resonate powerfully with the reader. This is what Fulton’s painstaking authenticity has been leading up to: an exposure of the truths which govern our lives and our interactions. The proof of these truths is how self-evident they feel, as they emerge naturally from the authentic dramas of the characters. And as statements about the art of living, they are not easily forgotten. One closes the book on a hopeful note, as each character has something to show us about how we may just be able to live, love, and die in grace.