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Review: Stories surreal and poignant make up 'Songs for the Deaf'

Published Mar. 25, 2014

In John Henry Fleming's new short story collection, Songs for the Deaf, a wanderer makes his living reading the future in the clouds, a bullied teenager becomes a messiah, a scientist discovers a space alien's surprising secret weapon. They're all residents of the often surreal but emotionally resonant world that Fleming creates in his fiction.

An associate professor in the creative writing program at the University of South Florida, Fleming has published a novel, The Legend of the Barefoot Mailman, and a "literary bestiary" called Fearsome Creatures of Florida; his short stories, including several of the 11 in this book, have appeared in various literary magazines and anthologies.

Fleming is a whimsical, imaginative, often funny writer, but even his most outlandish stories can sneak up on you with insight into the human condition.

Songs for the Deaf opens with an eerie tale called Cloud Reader. The title character is a sort of fortune-teller who travels from one small town to the next, finding portents in the sky: "His visitors have ailments of body, mind, and soul. Some no more than insatiable curiosity. They want to know the curvature of their lives, and the angle of their demise, and if there's a design, can it not be reworked in their hands?"

Cloud reading can be a perilous occupation when his prophecies fail to please, and more so when he is faced with making a prediction on which someone's survival hinges.

The wryly titled A Charmed Life is the brief biography of a fellow whose parents refuse to pay the midwife when he's born — and it all goes downhill from there, into an outrageous series of bad-luck episodes. He survives a hanging only to get lost in the Rockies for months, emerging from the woods looking like a yeti — right into the arms of a young woman who has been having sexual fantasies about just such a creature. But instead of taking the opportunity for "exotic, musty couplings" in the great outdoors, he suggests they do it in the bed in her cabin — so she dumps him. And that's only halfway through his weird journey.

The Day of Our Lord's Triumph (With Marginal Notes for Children) is a satire in pitch-perfect biblical prose, intoning the adventures of a hapless teenage boy who has in some unlikely future become a religious icon. He unsuccessfully flirts with a couple of "Magenta-Haired Girls" at the convenience store before miraculously besting his "Sworn Enemies" in a pickup basketball game: "While the Sworn Enemies lacked an outside shot, they were known to be deadly in the paint, and they did mightily press their size advantage to get there. And yet the Sworn Enemies did also love themselves too much and respected Our Lord too little."

The dreamlike Weighing of the Heart begins, "I'm out driving one day and this girl comes floating along the side of the road — riding air, a clean three inches over the gravel." It turns out our narrator drives all the time, compulsively, ever since he suffered a terrible loss — and that the floating girl doesn't know why she's floating or how to stop:

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" 'Eat some crisp bacon,' Mamma said. 'That might do it.'

" 'But not even a whole plate of bacon helped. Soon as I let go of the breakfast table I rose up and bumped my knees and spilled the coffees, and Daddy threw down his napkin and slammed out the door."

It seems a less than promising setup for redemption, but the story rises to a radiant image of just that.

In Xenophilia, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist is caught up in "the project of a lifetime, the study of a living alien." It seems yet another UFO has crashed in the Southwestern deserts, but this time its passenger has survived — a creature that does not communicate but whose humanlike appearance (the scientist realizes it reminds him of his ex-girlfriend) is disturbingly seductive. He's so taken with it, in fact, that he takes it out to dinner at an ultra-exclusive restaurant, where he runs into that ex, a kinky sociologist who researches her subjects by sleeping with them. She has completed her project on scientists and is now working on the military — and the general she's romping with is very worried about just what the scientist is doing with that alien.

Songs for the Deaf ends the book with another tale of surreal romance. The first time young Tony Sutter sang, "his chattering classmates shut up and his teacher's fingertips froze on the ivories," and outside a playground monitor dropped dead.

Tony — soon going by the single name Antonio, later the Magnificent Antonio — seems destined for a glorious career thanks to that voice, everyone agrees. Except his classmate Jeremy Jones, who is as unremarkable as Antonio is remarkable: "In high school, Jeremy slid like a frozen fish off the stainless steel prep counter of teen society." He just finds Tony annoying.

Antonio leaves their small town to seek his fortune, while Jeremy stays put. Neither one's life goes quite the way he expects, and Antonio ends up back at home, where his singing still enchants everyone, and where one day he is struck with love at first sight. The girl he seeks to win by serenading for hours outside her window is the same girl Jeremy is in love with, but he knows something Antonio doesn't: She's deaf. Yet she will hear something — something that leads to a happy ending where everyone ends up with the one they love most.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435.


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