It’s important that Madeline ffitch chose to name her debut collection after a sea chanty. “Paddy, Lay Back” is a traditional Irish folk song that has been rewritten throughout history, and oftentimes improvised, by sailors under the despotic rule of their captain and unkind oceanic rhythms. A skilled author could make up verses on the spot, adapting the song to be about their particular crew and adventures.
Paddy lay back, (Paddy lay back)
Take in your slack (take in your slack)
Take a turn around your capstan heave a pawl.
About ship’s stations, boys be handy (Handy!)
We’re bound for Valparaiso ‘round the horn
This technique, that ffitch should adopt the lyric as her book title, begs a predestination to the text, that the stories will build on one another until they result in an overarching climax, or else it implies that these stories will be linked by characters, themes, or locations. However, ffitch employs none of these strategies when collecting these eleven bold stories in one neat volume. In fact, the chanty itself does not make an explicit appearance in the title story, but in passing, when Abie, “the newest employee, and white, and slight of build,” is alone at lunch and listening to “the strains of a sea chanty flying over the fence from the dry dock.” Abie works for brothers Murray and Phil, former Black Panthers, at Black Rose Construction, located in between the Lake Union dock and the YMCA, until the brothers are mysteriously arrested—Abie is certain it was a “frame-up”—and Ms. Rose, their mother, takes over the construction outfit in the brothers’ stead. What the title suggests, in the face of the chanty’s brief cameo, is the vitality of fiction: that being orated or not, the story does not exasperate living conditions, but instead further enriches them.
The stories in Valparaiso, Round the Horn are multifarious, yes, but form an intricate whole. By the end of the first sentence of the title story, ffitch asserts her handle on the fiction genre, and we’re won over by the renowned playwright’s unique stylings. Where lesser authors might falter and eschew narrative skill en route to style, ffitch excels in the balancing act. Her prose pops while maintaining effective narrative arcs:
For every construction worker who is a man who pees next to the work area of a construction worker who is a woman and the woman says “please don’t do that. Instead, why don’t you pea in the porta-pottie?” and the man says “if you don’t like it don’t work on a fucking construction site,” and the woman complains to her supervisor, who is also a woman, who says “it sounds like maybe you weren’t cut out for this kind of work,” there is also a construction worker who is a man who is kind of private about where he pees, and would really prefer to pee in the porta-pottie, and who definitely doesn’t want to pee on or near a female coworker, although not out of sensitivity so much as being sort of conservative about peeing, and such a man is Abie Carlebach.
This is how we are introduced to Abie, as he sets out to unionize his workplace on the advice of “a real old salt, a real old tar, an old mariner,” the captain of the Lake Union dry dock, who accuses Abie of betraying his class when he expresses satisfaction at being a non-union operation. This sets into motion an abrupt encounter for Abie, beautifully plotted by ffitch, during which Abie meets Cappy, a union office worker. Abie fancies Cappy, whose “hair [is] fuzzy as a baby” and who brings him up to speed on the perils of women being urinated on in the workplace. There is humor in how ffitch is able to reposition a tired cliché like love at first sight into such a plaintive, worldly setting.
ffitch deals expertly in social and local politics that govern her characters’ descriptions and motivations. In “What Wants to Be Shot,” Hayworth, Thomas J. Jefferson’s “girl-cousin,” “love[s] those two young men as if she herself wasn’t real.” Flip J. Jones shoots a raccoon regardless of Hayworth’s insistence that they don’t kill anything. Hayworth, somewhat prompted by the first kiss Flip J and she shared one scene prior, begins to skin it without knowing how, and plans to cure the meat with salt, to use all of the animal, under the averted gaze of Thomas J, who mercilessly sips on rum and water, too coolly disinterested in Hayworth’s exploit to assist: “‘I don’t care about this,’ [Thomas J] told her. ‘I don’t want to know anything about this. I think we should leave it alone.’” The precision by which Hayworth mutilates the critter’s corpse is at once eerie and uplifting, and ffitch, by dedicating a page to the process, earns the story’s impactful conclusion in which Thomas J and Hayworth hear out Flip J’s vision after he returns from being lost in in the woods. Hayworth, until now, who we have seen be the butt of jokes between the boys, has transformed, socially and locally (within herself), to the point that her love for the boys no longer governs her friendships. She becomes a fully-realized, complex main character created by ffitch.
In “Planet X,” the inspiration for the Missoula Oblongata play, “Wonders of the World: Recite,” written by Donna Sellinger and ffitch, a grandmother and her eight-year-old grandson, Eugene, weigh the ethics involved with an “awful game about the space capsule leaving Earth,” in which the family was engaged on the car ride up to the creek, when they find the ocean to be too busy, as usual. During this game, one is supposed to look a person in the eye and tell them they are expendable, as there is only so much room in the capsule in the wake of a worldwide tragedy. The father is too preoccupied with his own game, an unspecified sport he’s listening to on the radio, which Cleveland is winning, and in one swift stroke of dramatic irony, the family is forced to confront an impending asteroid strike, when the commentator interrupts the game to announce Earth’s doom. “Planet X” is blown off its hinges in sixteen gut-wrenching pages, and the setting is starkly captivating.
Even the exposition in “A Sow on the Lam,” wherein a scientist goes into nature to document the decline of the Copes-Brinkley Mud Turtle, delights. The scientist finds an unlikely intern in Andy, who lives nearby on a pig farm. The pig farm is attracting wild sows to the area that destroy the habitat for the Copes-Brinkley, not one of which the scientist has seen, spending so much time out here. The scientist’s manipulative scare tactic seems more real for its horror story aesthetic, one that keeps children, and most adults, awake at night:
I tried to explain to Andy important things such as the web of life, such as seven generations, such as riparian. I knew his people were pig farmers and I hoped to impress upon him: In two generations, a passel of hogs becomes a sounder of wild pigs. Wild! Behold their black bristles standing on end, their tusks, three inches of ivory. They may carry a stipe across their shoulders, a telltale mark of their ancestral domesticity, but make no mistake: they will snap you arm in two with their jaws. They will run amok though your habitat unless you are vigilant about nothing but brummating.
The splendid autonomy of the stories makes Valparaiso an unputdownable book. ffitch has overcome many problems that plague debut collections, and her work should be celebrated. Recurring motifs, such as lost children in two stories, flirt with the idea that the collection could have been one story lighter but still achieved the same impact that two hundred forty-six pages imparts. However, those similar plot devices are dealt with so deftly that we do not become discouraged from finishing. Valparaiso is an essential debut by a powerful new voice in fiction.
Jason Teal is an MFA candidate in Fiction at Northern Michigan University. His work has appeared in Mid-American Review, Quarter After Eight, and Eleven Eleven, among other places. He is an associate editor for Passages North and a founding editor of Heavy Feather Review. He lives in Marquette, Michigan.