Finding Hope Among the Scars: The Flounder and Other Stories: Review by Ann Leamon

John Fulton’s The Flounder and Other Stories depicts men living lives, not of quiet desperation, but of imperfect healing around old hurts. Most of these have to do with abandonment, often by fathers, but occasionally by mothers who disappear or become incapacitated by the father’s departure. The protagonists of these spare, lyrical stories find their way through losses—of faith or love or dreams—and become emblematic of how we all move through the world carrying our invisible wounds.

Fulton’s spare writing plunges the reader directly into the situations he presents. Intriguingly, uses very few quotation marks to set off dialogue. This device, initially puzzling, ends up further immersing the reader in a dreamlike blend of description, action, memory, and conversation.

In these stories, we observe men in relationships. In some, it’s with women, but in most, it’s with father figures. These are quiet stories, with the action as a backdrop to an evolving understanding of old wounds and the principal actor’s understanding of his role in both giving and receiving that pain. Most of these stories take place in some unnamed town, giving them the sense of being unmoored. As a result, the stories occur in an elusive “anytime” and “anyplace” but end up with a resigned, sometimes vaguely hopeful, acceptance of an imperfect reality. 

In the haunting, “Box of Watches,” a distraught, unnamed teen, possibly on drugs, tries to rob a pawn shop that’s managed by Shaun, who has dropped out of college to take care of A.J., the grandfather who raised him. The description of Shaun’s mother’s abandonment has the stark reality of a Hopper painting:

...she had dropped him off at the age of six in front of A.J.’s shop, not even coming inside. The storefront’s two neon signs—“Money For Guns” and “Cash Fast”—flickered at Shaun’s back and the wind blew in Madeline’s dark hair as she shouted out the car window at him and his grandfather, You’re going to stay with Granddad for a few days, all right? And neither Shaun nor A. J. ever expected those few days to become sixteen years.

The teen wants to pawn “an old, half-collapsed cardboard box full nearly to the rim with used Timex wristwatches, most without bands, some with only half a band, their crystals cloudy and scratched.” Fulton plays with the image of time. The wheelchair-bound A.J., dying of cancer, taunts the teen, “this person carrying a box of used-up time [who] had come to finish [Shaun’s] grandfather off, never mind that he didn’t carry a scythe”. 

In his quiet, understated way, Fulton surprises us: Shaun finds a burst of courage and hounds the would-be thief from the shop. Although his hands shake so badly he can’t light a cigarette, A.J.  boasts of his courage after the encounter, saying, “I wasn’t (afraid). You saw that I wasn’t. I saw that, Shaun said, though he knew that A. J. was.” It is in this moment of accepting the old man’s version of events, despite their fiction, that we see love, even grace, in action. 

Evangelical faith and its loss appears in several of the stories, and plays a central role in “Saved.” Stephen, a teenager whose father is fighting cancer, reluctantly befriends his elderly neighbor, Mrs. Berry, who is nursing her husband after a stroke. Mrs. Berry takes the protagonist and his friend into the desert:

We ripped past a blue Impala and a pickup truck going in the opposite direction, after which it was only us, and it seemed as if we’d tear through the sky and escape what Pastor Lamb at Bethel Baptist called the End Times, when Christ would come again, as the lion and not the lamb, wielding a sword of light to strike down all who had broken His father’s laws. 

While Stephen’s family attends the local evangelical church, Mrs. Berry does not. The father’s cancer enters remission, which seems proof of salvation, especially since Mrs. Berry’s husband dies. But we then learn, 

What we didn’t know yet and wouldn’t know for another year was that my father’s cancer would return, as often happens, and he’d go quickly, after which my mother and I would move (…)There would be no Rapture, no End Times, no salvation for the righteous.

Faith plays a background role in “Budapest,” where two students—Leland, a traveling student from Utah, and a woman violinist from Brussels auditioning for a position she doesn’t want—spend a few days together in Budapest. Here there is no ambivalence about his faith, “the Mormon church—six hours of service every Sunday, the prayer meetings with the elders, the general discouragement of thinking and reading, both of which Leland liked to do.” Instead, he wants to leave it and his mother, who had absorbed his youth to compensate for his father’s physical abandonment. The violinist also is fleeing her mother, who forced her daughters into perfection to punish their father’s emotional abandonment. Fulton captures the antagonism: “The more perfect they (the two daughters) were, the more painful their cruelty would be to him (the father). They were hewing themselves into weapons. Or, rather, their mother was doing this—making them into bright, beautiful things with which to wound him.”

The story is unmoored not in place—it’s clearly set in Budapest—but in identity. Leland is never sure of his companion’s name, so throughout the story she is “S”—even though at the end, she admits he actually pronounced it correctly. Throughout their travels, people ask Leland where in American he lives, and since no one knows Utah, he begins telling increasingly outlandish lies: New York, the Empire State Building, and so forth. The story concludes with Leland’s decision to completely unmoor himself, “He would travel until he ran out of money or until he could be sure that he was not the same person he had been at home so that when he finally returned, he would no longer belong and couldn’t stay.” In this case, being unmoored is a means to the end of creating a new identity.

Other stories explore reconciliation. In “The Boy and the Murderer,” a boy overhears his mother and his grandmother retell the Tate murders that took place in 1969 as an allegory for the mother’s abandonment by the boy’s father. The boy, who narrates the story as a grown man, recalls,

How they circled around it, shook their heads, lifted their coffee cups, and set them down again before they could put them to their mouths, open in horror, talking, repeating the details, unable to sip their coffee because it must be said again, described and contemplated again, an evil this pure and calculated(...) 

The child is terrified, convinced a murderer lurks just outside his window. Yet we learn that “his father would eventually reenter his life and that he was not such a bad man, certainly not a man who should have cast the shadow of a mass murderer, though he was not—and never would be—an ideal father.” The wound remains in the man who remembers himself as a boy “still there, alone in bed. He (the boy) will, it is clear enough by now, always be there, which is why I feel his fear...” Like us all, he learns to live with the memory of childhood fears, which never go away. 

One of my favorites of these elegant stories is “Stitches.” Told in the second person, it starts, “You and your father are out in the fields hunting pheasants on a cold fall look down just in time to see your father topple over.” The son, now an accomplished professor with a happy family life, is reminded of his past, 

It’s a story which you remember more vividly than you want to and that seems about to disappear again into all the space inside you, a space you don’t often fathom. But the story doesn’t disappear. It isn’t as if you’ve ever forgotten it. But you do go about with it, as you do with most memories, as if it had never been there. 

The story involves the father’s abandonment of, first, the narrator’s mother, and then the narrator himself. Finally, after confronting his father about his pain, “you see what he has never said: that he is sorry. And perhaps it is this that you want—that that furious little boy wants—more than an explanation, more than a reason.” The past can never be fixed; the furious, heartbroken child can never be comforted. We carry those wounds with us. But sometimes, if we’re lucky, the other person says they are sorry. 

In two of the stories, “Nocturne” and “The Flounder,” we encounter the same couple and watch their relationship evolve. Daniel and Marian, newlyweds in their early 20s, live in an unnamed Swiss city. This trope works particularly well in these two stories, with the characters at an age when most people feel they are imposters in the foreign land of adulthood. 

In “Nocturne”, Marian has read the harsh comments Daniel wrote about her in his journal, which he may or may not have meant for her to find. She is furious and hurt; he defensive but also clinically detached. We learn that he hadn’t believed much of what he wrote, that his entries were “ideas he jotted down simply to amuse himself and to construct a person—not quite him—who could be rude, insensitive, thoughtless, who could be an asshole and enjoy it.” The question lingers of whether he did enjoy putting on that mask and the outrage it provoked in his wife. We readers might wonder if we have ever tried on a persona, and what was the result. 

When Daniel and Marian resolve their differences, Fulton returns to the motif of the wound that remains, the fact that nothing continues unchanged after such turmoil. “Daniel felt with an unsettling reassurance the presence of something—a sliver beneath the skin, a small wound that would grow better but never quite heal.” Their relationship is no longer as innocent as it had been.

Meeting Daniel and Marian again in “The Flounder”, the last and longest story in the book, is like encountering old friends. Again their marriage is in crisis, but now Daniel is the injured party. Marian confesses, the night before they leave for a vacation, that she slept with another man. The couple is trapped in a small rental car as they travel from their unnamed city in Switzerland to somewhere in France—he furious and hurt, she apologetic. She is unable to explain why she did it; perhaps like Daniel earlier, she was trying on a different persona. 

The emotional timbre of the relationship is heart-grabbingly accurate: he finds that “It was all so unlike her—this behavior, this sorrow and penitence, though it had a certain pull on him. He didn’t know exactly why or what the pull was. Perhaps it was that, for now, he had the power.” 

Over an other-worldly dinner the first night at their hotel, Marian tells Daniel the story of the Magic Flounder, with the moral that being God means feeling completely content in one’s situation, however grand or low. During their stay, Marian and Daniel move toward forgiveness, “but he thought it would take time and work and reflection and more time,” Fulton writes. As the story closes, Daniel imagines a moment “during which he would be equal to God, wanting nothing more or better than what he already had” despite the wounds each has inflicted on the other. The hurts scar over, allowing the bearer to function but serving as small memorials to pain.

These luminous stories generally conclude with a peaceful acceptance of loss and imperfection.  It’s something I would wish for everyone, not that everything is fixed and fine, but that life wounds us and we soldier on, finding grace in the most unexpected places. I would have everyone come to the same conclusion as Kent Boyd in the story, “What Kent Boyd Had,” that “he’d had a life for what it was worth, and that would have to be enough.” 

Ann Leamon’s work has been published in River Teeth, The Lyric, The Boston Globe, MicroLit Almanac, The North Dakota Quarterly, and Harvard Business School Press, among others. She lives along the Medomak River in Maine with her husband and a Labrador-Corgi mix.