From the Salem Gazette and the North Shore Sunday, newspapers north of Boston
June 24, 2007.

Reprinted with permission.

by J. C. Lockwood

It’s comforting, the thought that when someone close to you dies, a little part of them survives: alive in your memories, alive in you. But the practical applications of such a philosophy can be profound — and confounding — as made clear in “Lament,” a story by Salem author Dennis Must.

In the story, one of 21 collected in “Oh, Don’t Ask Why” (Red Hen Press/$15.95), Edgar Giles finds himself getting “lighter” each year. That is, he finds himself with fewer living, breathing connections to humanity. He’s lost his father, his brother and his wife, although Beatrice apparently just bolted, leaving everything, even her clothes, behind in her mad dash from Edgar.

But something snaps after the death of his beloved dog, Fred, although, to Edgar, it hardly seemed worth mentioning at the time. He decides to sleep under the table, just like his precious pet, just once, in remembrance. There’s nothing wrong with that. He drinks from the dog’s bowl when he wakes up on the middle of the night. And yaps at the windows when cars drive by.

Then, as time passes, he starts getting in touch with his ex’s feminine side, dressing up as Beatrice, looking very stylish in in an ankle-length saffron empire dress. Then his dead brother shows up and puts the moves on Edgar’s ex. Turns out he’s always had eyes for her.

It all seems, um, natural, possibly therapeutic and psychologically revelatory, but Edgar, of course, must deal with the reality, the lightness, sparking these more-or-less sympathetic transubstantiations. And he does. But Must isn’t done with the issues of loss, loneliness and grief of those left behind. It comes up, even more directly, in the story “Grief,” in which a son contends with a father still teetering on the emotional brink in the wake of his wife’s death.

But the worst part of it is the knowledge that he will never be able to move on, to get past the grief, because she will always be there, lurking: “No damn way are we ever going to get rid of her presence,” he says. “You can throw all that [crap] outside, clean every nook and cranny of her belongings, toss out the creams and face lotions, the prescription bottles, her Bibles, her photographs, you name it. Scrub her out of every board and the plaster in this house ... and she still won’t leave.”

“A piece of him was half gone,” Must writes. “It was as if his heart was eating itself in some kind of bizarre, comic remorse.”

Or they appear as ghosts, as in “The Bandoleon,” where a family continues to fight the same old battles — even after their deaths — playing out predetermined roles, unhappily fighting what cannot be changed, picking existential scabs, with the son, as always, stuck in the middle, the referee. Son, lost in the moment and forgetting that his father has passed, asks why he continues to come, that she’s gone, that nothing can be changed. To which his father scoffs: “Gone? He laughed. “‘Gone?’ We are never gone.”

Must, who will read from the collection July 10 at Cornerstone Books, lives in Salem with his wife Aviva, a faculty member at Tufts Medical School, and is 73 years old. He doesn’t look anywhere near it, but cannot outrun it. He quotes Pythagoras: Time tracks you down.

"I really feel that,” he says. “And because of that I have a very strong desire to get as close as I can to stories with people who still live with me. I can still feel their presence. It’s true. We don’t bury them. It’s true they live in us. But it’s probably a good thing we don’t live to be 400 years old. We’d be bent over with souls.”

Must was born and raised in New Castle, Pa. He graduated from Washington & Jefferson College with a degree in philosophy in 1956.

He enrolled in Princeton Theological Seminary — a mistake, it turns out. His mother was religious; he went to seminary school to “fulfill that destiny.” But his heart, his soul, weren’t in it. “I thought it would be a mystical experience, but it was more like a graduate school,” he says. “It just didn’t resonate.” But the time he spent hanging around the Princeton theater department did.

He switched gears, attending the University of Iowa playwriting workshop. In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, he taught in the Pittsburgh and New York school systems, while co-producing his own plays. He produced several plays off-off Broadway. In 1973 he moved to Maine and then Massachusetts, and walked away from writing — for good, he thought — as his wife pursued her career.

He got into commercial real estate in the go-go ‘80s. His company, Corporate Space, raked it in during the fat, so-called Massachusetts Miracle years, but economic reality caught up with the firm in 1991, when the market collapsed. “It took us out in three to four months,” he says.

Wheeling and dealing in commercial real estate may not have nurtured him creatively, but it did, despite everything, feather his bed enough to allow him to return to writing — “an opportunity I never thought I would have again,” he says.

The real and unreal

No, that is not Must on the cover of “Oh Don’t Ask Why,” although he “could not be happier” with the close-up image of a scrunched-up up face on the verge of uncontrollable laughter or tears: It is an image that describes the stories in the collection as well as any words could.

The stories, written between 1998 and 2005, are collected from various literary journals. They are less specifically autobiographical than those from “Banjo Grease,” a series of stories looking at life in small-town America, specifically the hardscrabble factory towns in rural Pennsylvania, published eight years ago. At the same time, however, they are closer to the author.

“These are situations and memories that tend to haunt me more,” says Must. They’re about family and friends — and loss. He quotes Anais Nin, that writers write to taste life twice.

“People yearn for something lost and to relive the experiences that cause them anguish,” he says, “not to change it, but to understand it.” For Must, like many, the focus is on family life. There was considerable turmoil in his family. His father was a philanderer. His mother was troubled, suicidal. He and his brother would seek refuge in the bedroom they shared for 16 years and “try to explain life to each other.” His brother died early, a fact that Must has “never gotten over.”

Like Edward, the narrator in “Portmanteau,” a story about roles and role-playing, whether deliberate or inadvertent, Must has “a habit of dragging people around.” These familial prototypes pop up again and again in the stories, sometimes in the heart of the stories, sometimes only in passing.

Like “Banjo Grease,” the new collection is a tableau of working-class lives and values — of people making it, barely, or faking it. It’s a glimpse of small-town America, a world of borderline poverty, Salvation Army and selling blood for money, where class anxiety, frustration and disconnect roil just below the surface.

It’s a world of real and perceived slights. The themes are dark: longing and loss, broken families, shattered lives — and, hanging over everything, death. His characters are complex, broken, flawed. They’re trying to break out of their shells, to fly out of themselves, to defy their own gravity, to become as big as their aspirations — and unable to escape: Like Aunt Eva in “She’s a Store Inside,” a whore past her prime, suffering from Parkinson’s disease, broken and unable to be who she has become.

Or, as one of Must’s characters says, “we are simple beings who must create for ourselves grand dreams to compensate for what we don’t own.”

Sad and broken, their pasts cast large, unforgiving shadows over their presents — as do the often class-inspired perceptions of others. “It’s very difficult keeping a sense of who you are when others insist that you conform to their notion of themselves,” says the day worker in “The Hireling,” whose bosses use him as a dress-up doll.

There is a sense of longing, hesitancy and reserve — a tenuousness, a sadness, that lurk beneath the writing. And trying on new roles in an attempt to save something.

Occasionally the stories are wistful, as in “Combustion,” a coming-of-age story involving serious miscommunication about a major rite of passage. Others — “Mechanic,” for example — take you by surprise: When you fall into an environment where you have one-half of a female same-sex partnership waving a turkey baster at you, well, certain plot possibilities come to mind, but the story isn’t about artificial insemination or other vagaries of modern relationships.

Sometimes the raw elements of crumbled relationships, big dreams, are combined into an ironic noir stew, as in “Typewriter,” which begins and ends as a humorous take on the writer’s life, but unveils, almost in passing, a tremendous sadness.

Must’s writing, in a way, is like the music of the bandoleon: “Implicit in each tune he plays,” Must writes, “no matter how tempestuous, how fiery, was a dark sadness, a spade of loam always falls to the earth.”

“We create our own paradise,” says one of the characters. “Mine was here. I recall it only in dreams.”

Dennis Must will read from “Oh, Don’t Ask Why,” a new collection of short stories July 10 at Cornerstone Bookstore, 45 Lafayette St., Salem. For more information, call 978-744-1831 or log onto www.cornerstonebooks-salem.com.

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