The Resonance of Objects: Thomas Derr's Telephone Road

Iain Morrisson

Jun 14, 2013

Telephone Road. Thomas Derr, Colgate University Press: Hamilton, 2012. There is something of a gap in contemporary Western literature in what might be called, after Camus, Sartre and perhaps Pirsig, the philosophical novel. Thomas Derr's Telephone Road is one such novel, in reverse, in linked short stories. These six stories wind their way back from the time that our Austin-based narrator worked during the dot-com bubble to his foundational experiences as a young boy growing up in blue-collar 1980s Houston. In the opening story our protagonist lives across the road from a couple who rent their Austin home to clients who pummel the interior to pieces with an arsenal of weapons and tools. "Housebreaking" follows the first-person narrator and his neighbors as they monitor the latest bout of destruction across the street. It is a story about waiting and watching--having the time to roam conversationally from topic to topic. After a fatal turn toward the end of the story, we are left with a set of tentative associations connecting household furniture and appliances with the more intangible and fleeting phenomena of nostalgia, memory and death. This relationship--between the domestic clutter of modern life and fleeting experiences of meaningful engagement with love and loss--frames the entire work, and introduces Derr as an unapologetically intellectual young writer.
As the stories proceed and the central character gets younger and younger, Derr moves us back through his fundamentally formative experiences of tenuous familial ties and death, experiences artfully described in terms of the precise domestic contexts in which they take place. Derr's work demonstrates a mature capacity to capture the tone and mood of these experiences through the lighting, furniture, and feel of the ordinary rooms in which our lives unfold. Adult lives in various stages of collapse surround our young protagonist, but the details of these parental trials are left vague and largely impressionistic. The writing sows seeds of insecurity even as the narrator escapes into BMX riding and youthful indiscretions; as readers we are driven back to the first few stories to see how these elements in a young life get worked out through adulthood. In the second story, "Clutter," the central character (now in his late 20s) receives a call from an ex-fiancée who wants him to help remove a dead deer from her front lawn. While she prepares for the job, he roams around haunted by the stuff in the house, objects that evoke within him a string of recollections and associations. Derr's fixation on the resonance of objects bears a certain kind of relation to forms of totemism; he elevates everyday artifacts almost to religious status in view of the traces of experiences that the protagonist can still see, feel and smell on them. He is a caught in a trance of remembrance, gently groping for something just out of reach--something evoked by hairclips, screwdrivers and yellow-painted walls. Derr's dialogue is crisp and realistic throughout, often flashing onto the page before giving way to a trail of remembrances of things past. Here is a good example from "Clutter":
"I wonder if I did kill it," Eileen said as I stirred my drink. "I put down some fire ant crystals a few days ago." "I doubt it," I said, crossing the living room and installing myself beside Eileen on the couch. "I doubt the concentration was high enough. It was probably hit by a car." "Last week," she said, "I ran over a possum and a roadrunner in the same day." "A roadrunner? Really?" During our first winter together, Eileen had started her car one morning and mangled the back legs of a six-week-old stray kitten that had climbed onto the engine block for warmth. I'd heard the commotion from bed, had dressed and made a bid for the animal clinic. Throughout the drive I'd mused on childhood pets, vivid and bewitching recollections, like watching old Super 8 movies. From the passenger's seat of the car, collapsed in a small wicker basket on Eileen's lap, with compound fractures distending its grease-stained hide, the kitten had breathed with a sibilant rasp, and hissed when Eileen tried to pet it. When Eileen tried to calm it by humming some sad ballad from her youth, my childhood dog, Chipper materialized in the back seat of the car, yawning and smiling and nosing frost rimmed windows.
Though the stories in this linked collection center around domestic objects and remembered associations, this does not close the author off to the lived world of childhood pets, a father's "enhanced" drag-racing car, BMX jumping, military service in the Fire division of the USS Enterprise CVN-65, Gulf Coast hurricanes, and the icy coolers of local convenience stores in the Texas summer. All of these provide the fabric of the protagonist's life and all are lovingly treated, described with the attention to detail reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy's horses. Derr is not writing for readers in a rush. Instead, this is a book for those who linger over past experiences, who wonder why certain events stay with them through life, who are haunted by the memories of the way an ex-girlfriend looked in a certain pair of jeans, or by a never-since-matched feat of summertime BMX daring, or by a mother's smiling eyes in the rearview mirror of Dad's nitrous oxide enhanced hot-rod Chevy. Thomas Derr's voice is fresh and raw, and yet clearly influenced by the faded voices of Proust and James. This book is a little treasure.