Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir

A few weeks ago, I wrote a review of Joe Meno’s The Great Perhaps that was less than favorable. Having failed to find much satisfying in that book, I thought I owed both Meno and myself a second shot and reread his short story collection, “Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir,” which I had read and enjoyed when it first came out several years ago. I’m happy to report that it holds up with age.

The physical book itself is a pleasure to hold. This perhaps merits mentioning in the days of the iPad and the Kindle. It’s a small, thin, square book — six or seven inches per per side — with spacious margins, comfortable line spacing, and the titles of the stories running vertically in the margin of right-hand pages so that you always know right where you are. Something about the book makes me want to call it a boutique book. It strikes me as one that wasn’t your average ordinary print run. So +1 for book design.

The writing in “Bluebirds” is easy. I don’t mean that it’s simplistic or lacks depth but rather that it goes down smoothly. It is easy but not necessarily light or lightweight. Or, it is even mostly very light but is light without being lightweight. It’s a hard distinction I’m trying to draw here. It reads, let’s say, like lightweight writing, but there is substance to it. I think this is probably a very hard thing to pull off, and Meno does it very well. It’s clear that he’s going for something similar in The Great Perhaps, but in the novel, the substance isn’t quite there. Where he tries to force the substance in the novel, he makes it seem effortless and exactly right in the stories.

“Bluebirds” is composed of seventeen stories averaging low-double digits each in page length (some a bit longer, some a bit shorter). Most of the stories are told in the first person, and they all seem like explorations of voice or perspective. The curious thing about this, to me, is that there seems to be something approaching uniformity of voice. That is not to say that the same voice tells all the stories, for it surely doesn’t, but even where there are clear sociocultural boundaries that would distinguish one voice or outlook from another in real life, the voices are often similar. It’s almost as if the various stories are being chewed up and retold to us by someone with a knack for turning a nice phrase (which of course they are). Whether this is Meno’s intention or is a lapse I can’t say. I like the voice and the easy way in which it tells the stories, so I’m comfortable with the similarity.

Meno writes about connection and about loneliness. Loss and loneliness and yearning run through all of the stories, and yet he avoids monotony by dreaming up wacky, quirky circumstances around which to drape the sadness (and occasional happiness, moments of real humanity and connection). It is a reflective book but not a melancholy one. I’m reminded very much of Daniel Wallace both for the sometimes fantastical stories and for the light way in which they both address dark subjects.

This is a good book, one that was given to me by a friend and one I’ll recommend to friends. It doesn’t require a significant investment of time to read, and for me, the payoff was phenomenal. It’s the sort of book that makes me want to write short stories. It’s not life-changing, but I’d go so far as to call it day-changing, for it’s a delight almost cover to cover. I’ll leave you with a few quotations that I dog-eared (only the first two are from the same story).

Junior, Carrie, and I went to the Olive Garden on Pulaski. We lounged in the fake Italian setting. We loaded up on bread sticks and free salad. We ate until we couldn’t speak. I thought, Olive Garden! You have saved us with your imitation Italian cooking!

I got this idea that for some reason I should be thankful for my father leaving. If my dad never left, my mom would never have gone crazy, and, well, my brother and I would not be living together and I would never have met Carrie, and this moment with my brother and me standing here like this would definitely never have happened. I was suddenly thankful for all of it, the comings and goings. I thought I would tell my brother about it sometime later when he wanted to talk about it, maybe, and I started to hope that this moment, this one here, would be the one we looked back on. It was too soon to tell, I guess, and we settled for standing there for a moment, watching the whole world take off and land.

There are some things that might make me angry, some things that are very wrong, and some things that are only for me — things that are very beautiful, full of beauty, like the old pistol and the tiger tattoo and the girl with the wig lit up by the sun. They are moments I refuse to share. They are moments I have never told anyone.

When I came back to the couch, Margaret was trembling. In the soft crook of her elbow, her pulse was beating like a hidden rabbit.

Birdie McCoy is a girl I make cry in third grade. When I do it, I doom myself forever. In the woods behind the elementary school, blue bows in her brown hair, her face red from a race, she is given a yellow ribbon for winning. I say, out of breath, “Who’s going to marry an ugly girl like you?” and she begins to cry quietly, for being faster than me, smarter, so small, so pretty. As she cups her hands over her eyes, I fall in love for the first time. Many years later I realize it is there, that moment, that dooms me forever. I fall in love with a woman as soon as she begins crying, which always, always occurs at the end of everything.

5 thoughts on “Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir

  1. Dan Summers April 30, 2010 / 11:08 am

    Oh, I loooooooove that third quote.

    It’s enough to make me want to read the short stories on its merits alone.

  2. Joan April 30, 2010 / 1:58 pm

    Ditto! The third quote really got me. I’m going to have to make time for this collection.

  3. Daryl L. L. Houston April 30, 2010 / 5:05 pm

    Yeah, it’s a good one. Joan, the collection won’t take much time. It weighs in at under 200 pages, and they’re small pages. I’m a slow reader and managed to sneak it in during spare moments over the course of a couple of days.

  4. Joan May 5, 2010 / 12:29 pm

    Ok, this is going on my order today! As if your post and comment weren’t enough to sway me, one of the stories is the basis for one of my favorite short films in last year’s Florida Film Festival – Our Neck of the Woods. I loved the film; it might be available online (at least in part or trailer) and is still doing the festival circuit.

    • Daryl L. L. Houston May 6, 2010 / 9:57 pm

      Joan, I had no idea a movie had been made from one of Meno’s stories. I found the web site for it and watched the trailer last night. I’ll be interested to see what you think of the two together. The trailer seems much brighter and whimsical than the story does to me. The tone seems all wrong. But that’s just a quick trailer, and the movie may be quite a bit different (and my reading of the story may be faulty). Thanks for letting me know about this. Please do chime back in once you’ve read the story in particular and the collection as a whole.

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