With a reporter's eye for the inside story and a historian's grasp of the ironies in our collective past, Greg Downs affectionately observes some of the last survivors of what Greil Marcus has called the old, weird America. Living off the map and out of sight, folks like Embee, Rudy, Peg, and Branch define themselves by where they are, not by what they eat, drink, or wear.
The man who is soon to abandon his family in "Ain't I a King, Too?" is mistaken for the populist autocrat of Louisiana, Huey P. Long-on the day after Long's assassination. In "Hope Chests," a history teacher marries his student and takes her away from a place she hated, only to find that neither one of them can fully leave it behind. An elderly man in "Snack Cakes" enlists his grandson to help distribute his belongings among his many ex-wives, living and dead. In the title story, another intergenerational family tale, a young boy is caught in a feud between his mother and grandmother. The older woman uses the language of baseball to convey her view of religion and nobility to her grandson before the boy's mother takes him away, maybe forever.
Caught up in pasts both personal and epic, Downs's characters struggle to maintain their peculiar, grounded manners in an increasingly detached world.
From Philadelphia Weekly, Oct. 11, 2006
A Philly author’s short stories exhibit a rare sense of history....His characters devour biographies, attend politicians’ funerals, chaperone field trips, latch onto outmoded street names, unearth secrets about dead presidents and watch chain stores gobble up small towns....In a story about a teacher who marries a former student, Downs writes, “Without history as a topic between them, he did not know what to say.” Another depicts a town split by a state line, spurring the rival basketball teams to trade insults like, “Maybe they call that defense in Kentucky” and “Get that Tennessee shit out of here.”
Lovely descriptions of baseball float through “Black Pork,” while “Snack Cakes” finds an overeating senior touring his former wives with a reluctant grandson in tow. “Indoor Plumbing” and “Freedom Rides” brush against the specter of racism, and “Domestic Architecture” has a parallel tale in which a leprous man is forced to leave his family....The book’s odd title comes from a story of the same name, in which a woman uses saliva to clean her grandson’s face. “The spit catches what the soap won’t,” she says.
Willful, self-reliant women are a staple in Downs’ stories, cutting men down to size on a regular basis. In the first story “Adam’s Curse” the women in a family simply give up on the men one day. Meanwhile, a mother in “Black Pork” muses, “He probably don’t even smoke Marlboros no more. He probably isn’t even faithful to his habits.”
Elsewhere thick-skinned daughters and ex-wives dish out insults to nonplussed males. Downs dedicated the book to his mother and grandmother, calling each “a fighter.”
From Publisher's Weekly:
Examining the nooks and crannies of contemporary backwater life in the South and Midwest, Downs's debut collection opens with a kaleidoscopic description of an extended family breaking apart that is as disorienting as it is beautiful.
"Black Pork" follows a white minor league pitcher back to the former sharecropper's shack he shares with his dementia-plagued grandfather, and manages to be simultaneously excruciating and deeply insightful about race as it centers on the two men's relationship with the black single mother and daughter across the lane.
In "Ain't I a King, Too-" (set in 1935) a man about to leave his family finds himself abducted when he is mistaken for the then just assassinated Huey P. Long, the corrupt former governor of Louisiana. "Freedom Rider" turns similarly odd when a school trip turns into a physical free-for-all among the adolescent participants. Even more darkly, in "A Comparative History of Nashville Love Affairs," a middle-aged man considers the frailties of his own marriage after observing a colleague eyeing a group of the colleague's wife's students.
A strong sense of style and unfaltering command of his material allow Downs to take the kinds of risks in tone and subject that make his debut a love-it-or-hate-it proposition.(Oct.)
From Kirkus Reviews:
A series of 13 punchy, white-trashy takes on displacement and youthful perplexity.
The first, "Adam's Curse," is a mere two pages long, and demonstrates nicely the strange beauty of Downs's imagination. The 19-year-old college-dropout narrator recounts blandly the decision by his female relatives to live without men-"they simply exhaled the men like sighs from their houses." The narrator, who lives in the basement of his aunt's house, observes both sides of the sexual divide, all the while simply aching to hop in the car of the willing Kroger checkout girl and take a ride with her.
The narrator of "Snack Cakes," as in many of the stories, is a high-school boy on the cusp of manhood, trying to navigate the dysfunctional trajectories of various family members-in this case, a grandfather who married six times still can't quite decide which wife he loves best.
In the title story, the boy's mother has left him for a month in the care of his grandmother, Maw-Maw, in Joelton, Ky., in order to find an apartment and new life for them in Springfield, Mo. The boy, Crawford, isn't sure what to think: "Every day your mother wakes up and says it's a new day," Maw-Maw tells him skeptically. "But the truth is there aren't any new days."
"Field Trip" fuses a young man's sexual daydreams into a schoolbus outing, while "Freedom Rides" pursues a soured middle-school trip through civil-rights history.
Perhaps the most ambitious and compelling story here is "Ain't I a King, Too?," involving the identity crisis of a middle-aged loner fleeing domestic tribulation back in Kentucky in 1935, who arrives in Shreveport, La., only to be mistaken for the recently deceased senator, Huey Long.
Downs, winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, is a writer to watch. His work has a cerebral, surreal element that requires a little piecing together.
Praise from Authors:
"The American short story is in fine hands with Greg Downs and Spit Baths. The stories are often funny, always deft. Here, the conundrums of American life and family are put in bold relief. Readers are in for a treat."
—Christopher Tilghman, author of Roads of the Heart
"Always engaging, at times compelling, Spit Baths is both thoroughly original and completely authentic. Greg Downs unifies these disparate stories through their tone—deadpan, informed with preternatural wisdom, so real they verge into surreal. Working from events stranger than fiction, he explores the hard truths at the edges of our lives, especially regarding the lingering scars of racism. In the process, he draws back a curtain to reveal a world in which people are always searching, never finding someone or some place they can call home."
—Fenton Johnson, author of Keeping Faith: A Skeptic's Journey
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