By Sarah Hoenicke for the Masters Review
Our current political conversation often revolves around the financial disparities rampant in American culture. Polly Buckingham’s recent story collection, The Expense of a View, hones in on the lives most impacted by the inequalities this gaping imbalance engenders. Buckingham tells the stories of the system’s most vulnerable—the ill, the partnerless, the parentless, the addicted, the poor, the isolated—exploring what it means to try to be a “healthy” adult when life has always lacked a major component of stability. The Expense of a View won the 2016 Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Short Fiction, and was released this past fall from the University of North Texas Press.
The inaugural story, “Honey,” is one of the collection’s best. In it, Buckingham gives a glimpse into the life of a “transplant”—a woman in a new place, “with a new job and no new friends.” She’s observant of the graffiti calling a former neighbor “snitch,” of the “dismembered motorcycle,” of the dog that’s died in her wood shed. Buckingham plays with the language, evoking things there and not there, the sense of two worlds coexisting. Is the Labrador sleeping or dead? Is its face pockmarked or shadowed? These differing interpretations of observed phenomena provide the reader with insight into the stories that follow and the collection as a whole. The point of view is half of the story. It controls how events and people are understood, placing blame or vindicating, vilifying or lionizing. The onus is on the readers, in part, to question what bias we bring with us. “Honey,” like many of the pieces that follow it, presents a believable picture of a depressed place that is all too full of dark realities.
Buckingham is concerned with the effect of environment on mindset, and vice versa. About the protagonist of “Night Train,” she writes, “His office is dark, except for sudden flickers of light shining into the porch.” This sentence perfectly describes the interior of this character’s mind as he descends further into emotional shadow after a family death. And on addiction, Buckingham is subtly observant: “Adjusting meds doesn’t work if you bury them in the potted plants.” As the title of the book suggests, these stories are preoccupied with people who don’t have the capital to obtain a view—either literal or figurative.
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