Samuel Snoek-Brown. There Is No Other Way To Worship Them. Tacoma WA, Blue Cactus Press, 2018. pp.1-205. ISBN 9781722922160 (paperback), $16US.
Sam Snoek-Brown is one of those under-the-radar writers who deserve more attention. His debut novel Hagridden was a re-working of Kaneto Shindo’s movie Onibaba, transposed to the bayous of Louisiana during the chaos of the American Civil War, but with extra forces of nature and supposed super-nature working upon it. His unique style may be compared to that of Cormac McCarthy, but with an added baroque touch, a sense of wonder and of the phenomenal within the experience of each moment. There is also a hint of modernism in his short stories, the medium within which he works at his best, inasmuch as there is often not so much a resolution to them as a sense of moving onwards, as though peace and kensho are the next step, or the one after next. Having been captivated before by his short stories, especially one from his earlier collection, Where There Is Ruin, where someone keeps returning to a spot in the woods where a beautiful body is decomposing over time, I was only too eager to read his latest collection.
I instantly hit a problem. The first story, ‘Jarabe’, is set on the debatable early nineteenth-century border between Mexico and Texas, and the writer has to find some way to convey, in modern English, the flow of Mexican Spanish at that time. It is always a difficult task for a writer to take a step back and across like that, and the result can often seem stilted and mannered. Snoek-Brown’s touch here almost works, but it is halt enough to disturb the reader a little. There is a tendency to season the English with Spanish words as ‘fixers’, but having said that, some of these words do not have any direct equivalent. For example, bruja is too easily translated as ‘witch’, but one has to appreciate that a Yaqui medicine-woman is part magician, part priestess, part natural scientist, part healer, and more. Thankfully the style does not limp too badly, and it doesn’t take a lot of effort to get to the moving-onwards point of the story, and it is just that – the next step is towards Louisiana.
But not yet. In fact, do we ever get there, or do we continue to hover around the Texas/Mexico borderland? The second story finds us arriving by Greyhound bus back in Mexico, back to the land of the Spanish fixer word. But this time they fall like flakes of ground pepper from a mill, and they do so with a purpose, which is to show the disturbance from peace that mixed heritage and culture can bring in the days when cultures and races are villages stockaded against each other – Mexican, American, ‘good’ Spanish, ‘bad’ Spanish, Italian, Chinese. The third story is stylistically disturbing again for no other reason than it shifts from third- to first-person, and by this point the reader must surely realise that the disturbance and dissonance is deliberate – how can we ever know calm without first knowing its opposite? The first-person narration is an inward journey for the reader, and a sudden appreciation of little borders to cross instead of big ones between states and countries, little borders between neighbours, neighbours seen but not known, little borders crossed only in finality. But there is no finality, only another step.
By the fourth story, which is fraught and obsessive, we begin to wonder whether there are connections between the characters in the stories so far. Is the protagonist someone who has been mentioned earlier, or is his name merely a coincidence? Do we ever meet that mentioned person anywhere in the collection? Does that matter, seeing as at the end the tension lessens from seethe to simmer, leaving the next step a choice between tempest and calm? Story five: a suicidal ex-husband, a girl with a missing toe, frightened feral dogs, an untraceable stench, and a man who in a moment of agony and fear calls out not for his wife but for a past love. Confronted by a border between present and past there is no calm, only “an unruly thunderstorm, a good spring war of rain that came out of the sky like it’d been poured out of some upended bathtub,” and we have an objective lesson in which way not to face a border.
Perhaps the only traveller through time in these stories, the one who crosses physical borders and the limes that separate human lifetimes, is a giant tortoise whose marijuana-driven frenzy stands for the human psyche but whose sloth and silence represent the ultimate in ineffable peace of mind that it is so hard for a human to grasp.
What are these stories about? They have about them an air of magic realism, but as so often with Snoek-Brown’s work, what may be supposed to be magical turns out to be phantom, and there is always something that is hard and real, against which the characters are brought up short. They always have a sense of wonder in both senses – awe and bewilderment – often in the face of something very basic and banal. In every case memory of what was, and what has been lost, is forced through one hundred and eighty degrees to face what is to come.