Families, neighbors, sometimes even strangers can be good sources for joy, adventure, and advice. Sometimes the company of such people can be a great relief; sometimes, these people seem to be more agonizing and infuriating than one thought possible. Tim Gautreaux utilizes this paradox to effectively explore and prod the afflictions people have between each other and amongst themselves. Though set strictly in the South, Welding with Children reflects on matters that transcend regional boundaries.
Tim Gautreaux, born and raised in Morgan City, LA, draws on his extensive knowledge of the people, geography, and mannerisms of Southerners to give his book an essence of its own, much as Raymond Carver did with the Northwest or Steinbeck did with the Salinas Valley. The stories gain flavor from details like a friendly but serious game of bourreé, an old Oldsmobile engine hanging from a willow, and a retired sugar mill worker and his bowling alley/gas stop attendant alcoholic neighbor. If some of these descriptions border on stereotypes, it’s because Gautreaux seems to embrace peoples’ views of Southerners, saying, Yes, we Southerners do talk incorrectly, have rusted durable goods on our lawns, and drink prodigious amounts of alcohol, but we also have the same relationships, problems, and triumphs as other people in this nation. In Welding with Children he aske the reader to look past the humorous quirkiness of Southerners and see the universal conflict these people experience.
Conflict is one thing in abundant supply in Gautreaux’s stories. In one way or another, all the stories in this collection deal with the problem of communication -- mostly the lack of communication. Not just difficulties with talking and hearing, but of communication and understanding between older and younger, educated and non-educated, have and have-not, those in need and those who can provide. The solutions to these problems, Gautreaux proposes, are usually found in the community, one’s self, even strangers. Religion is notably omitted from the list of potential solutions. Unlike a Carver story that has an open ending with little resolution, the stories in Welding with Children have clear resolution and closure. One of the few flaws of this book is that due to the brevity of the stories -- none is longer than 20 pages -- resolution sometimes makes the stories feel rushed.
“Easy Pickings”, a witty story from the book, showcases Gautreaux’ characteristic style. It starts when a recently released convict steals a car and drives down the interstate, pulls off into a driveway, and attempts to rob the sole inhabitant of the house, an eighty-five year old widow whose passions in life are talking and cooking chicken stew. Once Big Blade enters Miss Landreneaux’s house, miscommunication runs rampant. Big Blade introduces himself with the most intimidating, intrepid, and insane killer demeanor he can muster (something that he’s not; he was in jail for petty theft) while Ms. Landreneaux counters with her pragmatic, hospitable, secure personality (which is exactly what she is). Blade offers a knife through the neck, Ms. Landreneaux offers coffee. Ms. Landreneaux offers chicken stew; Big Blade offers to put her head in the stew -- then shortly thereafter he quaffs the meal. As the situation worsens with the arrival of a deputy sheriff (who accepts the offer for coffee) and the reader sees the gap between Big Blade and his hostage growing larger and larger, one can sense the burgeoning solution. With a little acting on Ms. Landreneaux’s part (a faked heart attack complete with dislodged dentures) and a well-placed shot from a double-barreled shotgun by her neighbors which debilitates Big Blade’s car, the situation is defused. Her neighbors and Ms. Landreneaux help themselves out of the situation, a theme preached throughout the book.
Gautreaux’s perceptive dark humor (how often does one laugh when reading about a heart attack?) keeps Welding with Children intriguing, his penchant for conflict keeps it exciting, and the plethora of settings makes it entertaining. Though it’s quite easy to quickly read through this book, one must be sure to catch the details about the characters -- how they talk and interact with each other, how they feel -- to fully appreciate Tim Gautreaux’s prodigious talents. This is a unique and well-told portrayal of the Deep South. Readers will enjoy the feeling of what books were to us when we were younger: a means of transporting us to a different world without leaving the room.