SPRING 2013 (Issue 78)

Anne Valente

Childhood Preserved: A Review of B.J. Hollars's Sightings

Indiana University Press 2013
163 pages

In B.J. Hollars’s debut short story collection, Sightings, we are treated as readers to an adolescent landscape of perpetual summer, a place where people are “turning on bug zappers and lighting citronella candles and placing hammocks between the lengths of trees,” a realm where kids are always “waiting in line for ice-cream cones or filling out job applications or shooting baskets in somebody’s drive” (“Indian Village”). Across ten stories we are treated to the nostalgia of an endless summer day, but the particular point on such days when the neighborhood streetlamps flicker on, the point when the sun’s long-lasting light begins to dim and the night’s darkness settles in.

Such are the precipices upon which many of these stories’ young narrators find themselves: at the brink of boyhood, the end of a Midwestern summer they once considered never-ending. The book’s opening story, “Indian Village,” sets this tone, wherein a group of seventh-grade boys entering the shameful stage of puberty— “their feet suddenly replaced with clown’s feet, their legs the legs of giraffes” —find themselves in a turf war with their neighborhood’s newest family. Upon sneaking up to the family’s house in a series of retaliations, two of the boys instead witness Georgia Ambler, a coveted eighth grader, engaged in sexual activity with one of the family’s sons. The boys’ only recourse, in keeping this sighting silent from their friends: “How could we break it to them that everything had already been done, that the world held no more mysteries?”

Mysteries are certainly the magnet at the center of these stories, their pull as alluring as they are foreboding. They form the threshold that pull these narrators toward a brink, a brink that leaves them disappointed once the world’s unknowns have been discovered, once the endless summer day has ended. They are sexual encounters, once dreamed, heartbreaking when witnessed and experienced. They are the foreign lives of parents, of coaches, the trappings of adulthood. They are even the wonder of Sasquatch gracing a high school basketball team for a single, fleeting season, in the book’s title story, “Sightings,” wherein the mysterious monster disappears only after a disappointing prom. From the hindsight of adulthood, the narrator returns regularly to the gym where the storied season took place and dreams of a time when “Sasquatch and the rest of the team managed to hold the future at a safe distance, boxing it out the best we could as the precious moments of youth wound down.” From this vantage point, the narrator still searches for Sasquatch in the shadowy wilderness, his tenure in the team’s lives as inscrutable and short-lived as adolescence itself.

In this way, sightings manifest throughout the book as glimpses back on the splendor of childhood, a time of hope and possibility, but also as peeks into the unraveling of the world’s mysteries, from the bright-eyed lens of boyhood, whether through the brief presence of monsters or quick peeks at a waiting world of sexuality. A different sighting entirely, however, occurs in the collection’s last story, “Missing Mary,” a darker tale that effectively denotes the end of innocence. This sighting is marked by its lack, the absence of witnessing, when a girl disappears from a community and is never seen again. Over time, after searches: “There are no sightings—not even glimpses—and everyone who remembers Mary soon forgets.” Mary’s sister, years later, thinks only this of her sister, much like childhood itself: “A moment there and then gone.”

While adulthood lurks like an undertow, a hard current beneath these ten stories, to read them is to return again to the soft sheets of a childhood bed, to run restless through neighborhood streets beneath a wide-open sky of summer light. Hollars’s prose is bright, as alive as youth, full of “black cats and cherry bombs” and full of humor as well, the effect of what narrative distance stretches between these boyish narrators and ourselves, what they don’t yet know (“Indian Village”). And yet we forget, while reading, that we have grown up, that we are adults. In Sightings, though the night lies in wait, we are children again in the sweltering heat of adolescence, full of hope and mystery and wonder.