Sunday, July 15, 2018
Books

Review: A poet's short stories intrigue in Meinke's 'The Expert Witness'

In Peter Meinke's new short story collection, an unpublished poet's work may be worth millions, a pair of unhappily married actors deploy their craft to make their marriage seem ideal, and houses haunt people, instead of the other way around.

Meinke is Florida's poet laureate, and before that he was the poet laureate of St. Petersburg. He directed the writing workshop at Eckerd College for several decades and has been a poet in residence at many other colleges and universities. He's not only an accomplished and widely honored poet and educator, he's a fine short story writer as well.

Meinke's first story collection, The Piano Tuner, won the Flannery O'Connor Award 30 years ago. His new one, The Expert Witness, collects 18 previously published stories and eight new ones, all illustrated with the charming drawings of the author's wife, Jeanne Clark Meinke.

The stories are often charming as well, although many of them combine Meinke's wry humor and human insight with a dark undercurrent of violence and betrayal.

Uncle George and Uncle Stefan, for example, at first reads like a comic reminiscence about the narrator's immigrant family and the uncles of the title: motormouthed, excitable Stefan, from the Polish side of the family, and burly, good-natured George, from the German side, who love to pal around together. But as World War II escalates, its conflicts come home with shocking immediacy.

A number of the stories are set in Europe, where their American characters find situations beyond the tourist brochures. The husband in The Hotel Mesopotamia takes a break from his brisk wife, "the most efficient tourist in the whole world," for a little impromptu flirtation outside a patisserie. He turns down temptation, only to have the tables turned on him.

In The Actors, we meet Maggie and Vince, who are mightily tired of each other. "The fact that they were still together testified to their skill as actors. ... trapped by their own talent for dissembling. A handsome couple, they were looked upon by their friends and relatives as an example of that growing rarity, the perfect marriage." While living in Warsaw, they discover that their apartment has been bugged by the government, so they amuse themselves by acting out outlandish scenes for the hidden microphones. One of them will prove to be a better actor than the other.

The title story recounts the sad fate of Thomas Wintergreen, a high school substitute teacher who is rendered brain damaged by a hospital's negligence after he has an accident. Wintergreen is black, his mother poor, and their lawyers smell a settlement to avoid bad press about racism. When one of the lawyers discovers Wintergreen's unpublished poetry, he calls in the expert witness of the title, and things get interesting.

Several of the stories are twists on the haunted house theme. In one called The House, a trick-or-treating youngster has a vision inside a house much finer than his own that will drive him to strange behavior. A Woman Like That is the story of a man who retires to St. Petersburg and falls in love with a woman whose living quarters don't seem to fit with her personal charm. In The Voices, a man buys a run-down house for practical reasons, and his wife works herself to the bone to renovate it for an obsession of her own.

Although most of the stories in The Expert Witness are realistic, The Voices and a few others move into the territory of horror or science fiction. The main character in Unheard Music finds it increasingly difficult to know whether he's dreaming or awake: "When he was asleep he'd dream of going to sleep and dreaming other dreams, often about dreaming, so the effect was like a hall of mirrors where the real self gets lost in a maze of distorted images." After a horrifically violent episode, he comes up with a way to figure out whether it really happened — if he could only know whether he's dreaming when he enacts the plan.

Fulfillment Day is set in a future where youth and beauty reign and everyone is issued a tombstone with their birthdate and "fulfillment day" already engraved on it. When Rebecca's friend dies ahead of schedule, she tries to have the fulfillment date on the friend's stone corrected, only to find it might not be a good idea.

Fantastic or realistic, Meinke's stories in The Expert Witness are all populated with intriguing characters and, of course, told in a poet's voice.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

 
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