Signals: New and Collected Stories
by tim gautreaux
knopf, 384 pages, $26.95
For many years Tim Gautreaux has written about fateful journeys. In this new collection, he writes about the signals travelers meet on their way. Signals that are meant as warnings. Signals that are missed.
Some of these signals are found at level crossings or at intersections. Some are far from any road. Wherever they are, they always point beyond themselves. In “Idols,” the protagonist studies a potential employee, “looking for signals”—but, being blind to his own failings, he fails to read the workman correctly. In another story, we read about a Bug Man who by virtue of his job has privileged access to the lives of others, but when he disinfects the house of a former beauty queen he misinterprets what he sees. “The Beauty Queen’s movement and words were signals to him, road signs pointing to his future”—but the future turns out differently than he had expected. In Gautreaux’s stories, signals demand knowledge, even wisdom, if they are to be understood.
The progress from ignorance to wisdom is familiar from Gautreaux’s earlier stories, some of which make it into this new collection. The inclusion of “Deputy Sid’s Gift” and “Died and Gone to Vegas” is particularly to be welcomed, though I was disappointed to find that some of Gautreaux’s best stories, such as “Waiting for the Evening News,” do not feature here. What we get instead is some tremendous new writing: intervention stories, as Gautreaux calls them, “where somebody's in a bad way, and a character takes that step to help, breaks through the mirror, to go to the other side.”
We are introduced to other kinds of signals. In the title story, Professor Talis Kimita’s gardener repairs his Pioneer radio. The gardener revels in the mechanics of the task but, like Gautreaux, she realizes the limits of her work. Professor Kimita is reliant on radio signals because his life is empty of meaningful human relationships. His gardener, by contrast, knows that tuning in to radio signals can get in the way of finding more fundamental wavelengths.
Many of Gautreaux’s characters turn from the human to the mechanical in search of solace. But one of the strengths of Gautreaux’s writing is that the stories don’t end with desperation. Signals point beyond themselves to a bigger reality that is often discovered only when the signals stop, when the radio breaks. Work matters in these stories—but what matters more is the silence that comes when work ends. Characters discover themselves and the importance of their relationships in deserts, in night gardens, and in snow-covered ditches, when it becomes clear that work cannot deliver what they have been yearning for.
Gautreaux, who has described himself as “a Catholic writer in the tradition of Walker Percy,” may write with his fellow Louisianan peering over his shoulder. But Signals also invites comparison with the work of Flannery O’Connor. Both authors were products of Mark McGurl’s Program Era: the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in O’Connor’s case, Southeastern Louisiana University in Gautreaux’s. Both are short story writers who also wrote fine novels. Both see acts of violence as possible moments of grace. Both are serious writers who can be tremendously funny. (“Easy Pickings,” one of the finest stories in Signals, is a comic masterpiece.) And, importantly, both authors avoid what Elif Batuman has called “technique taken as telos.” Gautreaux’s plots are taut, his characters sharp, and his dialogue precise, but for him the writer’s craft is never an end in itself. His stories are teleological, but the end lies outside the stories themselves.
The transcendental is never wholly contained by Gautreaux’s well-made stories. To put it simply, Signals is a sacramental collection. There is a fair smattering of Catholic priests in the stories, but the sacrament that occurs most frequently is neither baptism nor the Eucharist, but penance. Having been brought up short by disaster, many characters feel the need to confess, sometimes to priests. Having been blind to their own faults, they rediscover what matters in life and change direction.
Gautreaux’s world is intensely physical, just as his religion is intensely sacramental. It is fitting, then, that the book finishes with a story about the body, about a man’s struggle to breathe, his slow physical recovery mirroring and effecting the healing of his marriage. The story ends with a love that is rooted in the grit and grime of our tangible world and rises beyond it. Beginning with violence and disaster, Signals ends with physical love, a good in itself and a signal of something greater.
Roy Peachey is a doctoral student at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, Melbourne and teaches at Woldingham School in the UK.