Book Review – In the Same Streets You’ll Wander Endlessly by J. J. DeCeglie
In the Same Streets You’ll Wander Endlessly is J. J. DeCeglie’s first volume of short stories and second book overall. In some of these stories we are re-introduced to Sep (the sea is not yet full‘s protagonist) or at least someone very much like him. Many of these stories overlap in their physical and thematic terrain, but a number are notably different in their style and genre. This is important because it shows that DeCeglie has range as well as depth.
Around half of these stories follow roughly the same direction. In “Early Lasting Sunlight,” the unnamed narrator is in New York, far away from his native Fremantle. He drinks coffee, thinks about Kerouac and Bukowski, and chats up a waitress at a cafe. There’s some sex, some writing or discussion of writing, and a fair bit of drinking. This is what I would term the typical DeCeglie story, in that the writer appears to be charting territory (both physical and mental) that is personally familiar to him. This is a strength and a weakness: a strength in that the stories seem concrete, actual; and a weakness in that, as a result, the narratives aren’t ‘sculpted.’ This is DeCeglie in realism mode.
“Lights Behind the City” is a short piece that is highly reminiscent of the sea is not yet full. Here DeCeglie depicts a night on the town in powerful, relentless prose. Some descriptive passages are especially vivid (“Rain spraying from above pattering the everything around us and lifting the heat from the orange glow road”) and DeCeglie uses direct reader address to encourage us to imagine the scene (“Even before you get into the starkness of the streets after nightmarish taxi trips you’re so very inebriated that you articulate spun gold and drip mistrust”). Here again we witness the DeCeglien staple of literary discussion interspersed with drunken debauchery.
“Summer Spent” is much the same. Here Sep is mentioned by name, but he may well have been the unnamed protagonist of the first two stories as well. His friends Stone, Irish, Chase and others keep turning up, suggesting that most of these stories are interrelated. But this reads less like a short story and more like a few pages from a novel. “Underground” is the first story in this volume to change things up. Here DeCeglie describes a train bomb in convincing detail. One thing I noticed here is that this writer is able to depict personal injury exceedingly well. These are no metaphorical injuries, they are actual (“the wound was packed with shrapnel, he could feel it still hot on his fingers, tried to dislodge it slightly, he could tell it was interfering with bone”). This lurches between visceral description of the train and recollection of an earlier time as a swimming instructor.
“Unforced Error” is among my favourites in this volume. One reason for this is that here DeCeglie alters his style from Kerouac to Hemingway. A matter of taste perhaps, but I will always champion prose that is clear over that which is murky (“There was no sleep to be got that night and it came with the heat and noise and weight of other things”). Some of these sentences run-on to an extent, but not to the same extent as they do in the sea is not yet full. The narrator’s voice is clear and strong here: “Sometimes life was tough he thought, this is tough, it’s awful, but he felt it had to happen even so and was why life was tough because even though you knew things would end up badly you still did the things that made them that way.” I noticed in the publication details that “Unforced Error” appears to be the only story in this volume not previously published. Is this because it is a more recent story than the others?
“Dark Shadow Off the Fire” is the best story in In the Same Streets You’ll Wander Endlessly. There, I’ve said it, stated my opinion. Why is it the best? Because here DeCeglie invites us into an unknown (and terrifying) world. Is this set in the past, present or future? I can’t tell. But it’s a kind of rural apocalypse, full of murder, rape and revenge. And it’s gripping in the extreme. We are hit with this story’s intensity from the first line (“The sun struck down on him like a wall of scalding water”) and it never lets up. Our protagonist is in desperate trouble. His family have been killed, his home destroyed, and he is in great danger. Floating into his mind, however, are images of something else entirely (“her perfumed creamy skin lends through with the pale rich blue of veins in her breasts and the underside“). A man called Smith has left our narrator to die tied to a hitching post in the desert sun, in a situation that reminds me of Gabrielle Lord’s novel Salt. His crimes seems to be carousing with Smith’s girl, a crime punishable by death. Despite some serious injuries (which are depicted with conviction), our narrator manages to free himself and wreak revenge on Smith. After that, things seem to descend into some hellish pit of Aboriginals versus whites, whites versus whites, and man against man. This is extraordinary, and I will need to read it again to appreciate it fully. In this story, DeCeglie offers us a dark vision far outreaching the urban angst of modern life.
“River into Sea” is reasonably good, but it’s too similar for my liking to what has gone before. “Disturbed Reminiscence and Existence in Broad” seems like a different take on “Lights Behind the City.” “By the River” strips the usual DeCeglie plot down to its barest essentials, tersely describing a sexual encounter. “In the Same Streets You’ll Wander Endlessly” is well written, but by this stage in the volume I was tiring of what seemed to me to be the same plot rewritten and reimagined. I suppose this is a matter of taste, but I prefer it when DeCeglie envisages something more than yet another turbulent romance.
I did like “The Wench is Dead,” however. If I am critical of the ‘sameness’ of many of DeCeglie’s stories, it is partly because they depict a line of thinking at a similar stage of development. “The Wench is Dead,” however, takes some of these ideas further, to good effect. Here we see our narrator gambling recklessly (but apparently quite successfully), thinking about “when girls weren’t just a rough smacking thump or regretted sorrow.” The prose is bare and stark, the mood despondent: “Working he was a partial automation. Never sleeping sufficient, thinking relentlessly of the return. Of the way the cards would arrive. The structure of the sentence.” A life lived in a state worse than Thoreau’s quiet desperation. I am reminded here of a writer I doubt DeCeglie would have heard of, Barry N. Malzberg, whose depressive worlds and gambling jaunts seem similar to the one depicted here.
“Spoken Biography of J. J. DeCeglie” is a minor piece, mildly amusing but nothing more, and “Still in the Fury” is an extremely short but effective piece that seems to co-inhabit a universe with “Dark Shadow Off the Fire.” In summary, this is an uneven volume but one which offers great promise in this writer. To my mind, too many of these tales tell essentially the same story, and as such would be better merged into a single narrative. Several, however, break the mold in sometimes spectacular fashion. “Dark Shadow Off the Fire” deploys DeCeglie’s dark vision to greatest effect, and “The Wench is Dead” impressively depicts life during and after a fall from grace. From the publishing notes, I can’t help but notice that the stories I think strongest were published more recently, and the minor pieces in 2005 or 2006. This can only be a good thing.