Review: Looking Back, Moving Forward: Reflecting on Life Happening in Jack C. Buck’s Deer Michigan
By Santino Prinzi
In many of the stories in Deer Michigan (Truth Serum Press, 2016), characters reflect on memories of what once was and how the world around them has changed, whether they wanted it to or not. In these moments, we find loss, anger, and regret, as well as happiness and hope.
“Hoop Dreams” is a coming-of-age story about young boys obsessed with the NBA and Baywatch. The narrator remembers his childhood in 1998 and how he and his friends were fascinated by Denis Rodman and imitated his behavior: “Purposefully missing shots in order to accumulate more rebounds on the stat sheet, diving on the concrete for loose balls, temporarily dying our hair for a day with green and red Kool-Aid you know, Rodman type of stuff.” This imitation of celebrities or icons feels innocent and playful, and we probably all did the same when we were their age. Rodman’s actions become the boys’ aspirations as he begins dating Carmen Electra because “Dennis wasn’t considered good looking, so it gave hope to all of us teenage losers that we could date one of the Baywatch babes, too,” but already Buck suggests the recollection of this memory is tainted with contempt. The boys are losers, and this imitation of Rodman makes the narrator feel foolish on reflection. Buck then explores the naivety of these boys, “We all thought we were inevitably destined for the NBA, that was a given, but Dennis dating a television supermodel was an added boost of confidence,” and this evokes a feeling of what is natural to believe at that age. That these boys were going to grow up to become NBA stars and date models “was a given” and seems so normal, as we all did when, as children, we believed we would become our heroes one day.
As with any coming-of-age tale, there comes the moment where that innocence is lost, where we realize how naïve we have been, and we step closer to adulthood. Perhaps one of the most “adult” realizations I ever had was that life happens—you will experience things that are entirely out of your control, they will change everything, and there is nothing you can do about it. This begins to happen for the narrator of “Hoop Dreams” in June 1998 when Bill, who is integral to the friendship group because he “would tape the episodes of Baywatch and the Chicago Bulls games and then make VHS mixtapes for the 20 boys in our neighbourhood to watch,” moves away after his mother “won a jackpot at the Gun Lake Casino.” This move ties in with Rodman’s new contract signing with the Los Angeles Lakers. For the boys, ‘it all happened so quickly” and “it didn’t make sense to us that people would move away once they got a little bit more money,” demonstrating the beginnings of these boys becoming adults. However, it is the following year when failed contract negotiations suspend the NBA season and the boys burn their Rodman jerseys and stop watching any television involving Los Angeles, as if this action will make a difference. Of course, it doesn’t, and their disenchantment draws these young boys into a loss of innocence, an understanding that their “neighbourhood was changing, us with it,” and that they cannot go back.
“Somewhere in the future you are remembering today” is another reflective story, but this one is directed at the narrator himself, or rather his future self. Opening with one of my favourite lines of the collection, “You found out rather painfully that love moves to places like New York without giving two weeks notice” echoes the idea in “Hoop Dreams,” and in many stories in this collection, that things happen that are beyond our control. In this case, it is the breakdown of a relationship, and the narrator tries to move on, “You try to rationalize it; making lists keeps you somewhat sane. It’s the start of something else, as someone one day before now said to someone else in a similar situation.” The idea of list writing as a coping mechanism is striking; it is certainly something I do to try and make sense of my own mind. Even though “you’ll type up twenty-seven-and-a-half copies” of this list, there is the feeling through this half-list that the narrator gives up, and accepts that at this point, despite the pros and cons he has thought up about moving to New York with her, there is nothing that can be done now: he is too late.
Buck understands that life may happen, and that there may be nothing that can be done about that, but that these experiences too can hold great joy as well as sorrow or regret. In “you are:”, Buck presents the happier side of romantic relationships by using a list to outline all of the things that make the person the narrator is in love with so wonderful. What prevents this device, and the story as a whole, from being gimmicky is how these things feel intensely intimate and personal, but I could relate to each of them: “the taste good waffles in bed makes; all the best wine I’ve ever had and will later have,” “You are: me opening the door and you are there, then taking me out that very door I just walked through for me to see and think things I’ve never seen or thought before,” “You are: 5.5 liters of my body’s blood rushing to my heart; you are: making it acceptable for me to even be somewhat okay with ever writing something like “blood rushing.” This relationship is special, but Buck has invited us into its precious moments without us making us feel like outsiders to it.
In Deer Michigan, Buck masterfully invites us into moments where we’ll try to make sense of what happens in life, be them difficulties or triumphs, and reminds us that life will carry on.
Santino Prinzi is the Flash Fiction Editor of Firefly Magazine, a First Reader for Vestal Review, and the Co-Director of National Flash Fiction Day in the UK. His debut flash fiction collection, Dots and other flashes of perception, is available from The Nottingham Review Press. His short stories, flash fiction, and prose poetry have been published in various places. To find out more follow him on Twitter (@tinoprinzi) or visit his website: https://tinoprinzi.wordpress.com