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CARPE LIBRUM: Philip Gerard’s new collection of short stories mesmerizes

Philip Gerard’s “Things We Do When No One is Watching” is a new short-story collection that mesmerizes.

Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

Things we doThings We Do When No One is Watching
Philip Gerard
BkMk Press, 2017, pgs. 174

I discovered Philip Gerard’s work the same way the majority of his local readers did: through “Cape Fear Rising,” his novel about the 1898 coup and massacre that consumed Wilmington. The book served a greater purpose of putting those events squarely into conversation and focus, ahead of the coup’s centennial mark. But, for all the attention focused on “Cape Fear Rising,” Gerard has a host of accomplishments that include additional novels: three books on the process of researching and writing creative nonfiction. “Down The Wild Cape Fear” is possibly the most fascinating and comprehensive book on our river in print. He has an album of original music titled “American Anthem.” In some ways it feels phenomenally unfair how gifted Gerard is as a writer, musician and distiller of American life. His daily life reads like an adventure novel: kayaking, cycling, hiking, camping, and writing. Who wouldn’t want that? Somehow, he manages to pull it off with an amazing amount of charm to neutralize envy at 50 feet.

Last fall he added a short-story collection to his list of accomplishments. Titled “Things We Do When No One is Watching,” the collection mesmerizes. It is the ultimate compliment: When reading the title story, Jock wanted my attention to discuss an issue related to domestic scheduling. Instead of putting the book down, I informed him he was going to have to wait three more pages before he could have my attention (which happens less than once a year).

I went to bed one night fretting about the characters in the title story—because they are so compelling and their struggles so vivid and gripping. Set in and around the middle of the 20th century, it gives a connected sense of memory to the pieces. Gerard tackles topics more difficult than first meet the eye—and we expect to end in pre-determined tropes. Then he veers off to pull our heart strings elsewhere. Each story is filled with surprise and power.

It’s mid-century, so the Vietnam War hangs in a shadow over the country, but young men especially. In “O Canada” we visit a family grappling with a draft notice. “From sixth grade on, the war had been a dark uncertainty brooding over my life, the big awful thing waiting for me just beyond the doorway.” It’s an entire generation of young men heard in the protagonist’s voice. Now the Sword of Damocles has dropped, so what is one to do and what are the long-term costs of a decision made just after turning 18?

Though the shadow of Vietnam is still firmly in the American mind, Gerard reminds of another shadow over his childhood: polio. Every adult in my life (of my parents’ generation) can recall the polio vaccination—sugar cubes, booster shots, lining up at public schools for both. What Gerard explores from different angles is not so much the collective memory of the vaccine, but rather the creeping terror of the long national nightmare attacking people, especially children, and maiming them for life. “Flexible Flyer” is told from the perspective of a child whose brother contracted polio. He watches the disintegrating impact it has on their family life. The full horror of its effect on their small town is revealed to him in an undeniable way.

Don’t be mistaken in thinking his collection is all lurking fears. Gerard is a romantic, and at the core of his work is a pervasive belief in love—love in a time of crisis, love as regret, love as a sense of care and responsibility. “Stepping into Flight” is a gentle look at the way we communicate and express love in different forms. “Miracle Boy” is a story of loss of belief and love, and the desperation to reclaim both. Paralleling the events of parents who have lost their children, it evades sentimentality while still tugging at your heart. What is life? What is death? Who really gets to decide which is which? Characters filled with certainty weigh in on the questions without having to bear the responsibility for their ramifications. If anything, Gerard puts such pain front and center in a completely concrete way in the real world.

We have so very many talented writers in North Carolina, we can lose sight of just how lucky we are to have such a vibrant literary community. If readers only know Gerard’s long-form work, pick up his short-story collection. They’re jewels like Fabergé eggs: Taken as a whole they are remarkable, but the details will blow readers away and leave them wondering, How did he do that?

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