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Mon March 21, 2005
I'll Never Leave You
Nine stories in I'll Never Leave You examine the influence of the sea on the lives and loves of people in a mythical New England town.
By Don Noble
Herb Francis, who writes as H. E. Francis, is a retired professor of English from the University of Alabama at Huntsville. Francis is the author of 10 previous books of fiction, has published over 200 stories in periodicals, has translated 200 stories from Spanish, including three collections of stories, and now, after long residencies in Argentina, makes his homes in Huntsville and Madrid, Spain.
Francis has had a distinguished career, but never any huge sales, which probably doesn't bother him very much, because he is doing exactly as he pleases in the creation of his fiction.
His major influences have been William Faulkner, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, a number of Spanish writers, and the Portuguese writer Salamaga.
He is perpetually experimenting, sometimes avoiding punctuation or using it in a new way, sometimes omitting phrases from his highly internal stream of consciousness, so that the reader, when the technique works, supplies them himself. Not all readers are able or willing to do this.
It seems to me that Francis's work is more successful in the story form, such as the recent volume The Sudden Trees, than in, for instance, his recent novel The Invisible Country. His fiction does, it must be said, moves slowly, deliberately. This fiction is not for the Tom Clancy fans among us.
And his stories have won prizes--from the very first volume, An Itinerary of Beggars, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Award, to the present volume, I'll Never Leave You, which has won the Chandra Prize for Short Fiction at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
This is a volume of nine stories which average 23 full pages apiece. They are nearly novellas. The title story is, not surprisingly, the most powerful, and the most explicit, unusual for Francis, because the situation, a decades-long, secret, m?nage-?-trois, is explored, not just hinted at.
This story is set on Francis's home ground, the eastern end of Long Island, across from Connecticut, really a part of New England with all that implies--a natural world of rock and ice and cold and a history of repression and severity.
There is a love triangle. Alan has given up a career in music to remain in town. He is in love with Steve, who is married to Elsa and has several children with her. Does Elsa know? At what level of consciousness does she know? Alan feels himself also married to Elsa, and father to Steve and Elsa's children. And the reader can see that. It's true, and Elsa feels it, too. Even the children feel it; to them, Alan is a second father.
All these stories but one take place in this mythical town, with the beach and the sea immediately nearby. One story is entitled "The Boulders," but those same big beach boulders figure in many of the stories, solid, eternal, immoveable.
And the sea itself recurs in each story, but more actively. This is a seafaring town, like a whaling port in Melville, and many drown.
But the sea is also the source, the origin, of all life. Characters marvel at the horseshoe crab: millions of years old, it has outlasted the dinosaurs with which it once coexisted. The sea is always fecund, and in several stories human fertility, or its opposite, sterility, is the issue, but the sea is also sometimes the place where characters in despair go to contemplate or to commit suicide.
Francis's stories are inner stories. We learn, at a stately pace, what his people are thinking and feeling. The problems are human and real, not melodramatic. These characters are lonely, or contented, restless or satisfied, desperate, frightened, but their lives are perfectly authentic, even if lived in a small compass in a little village at the edge of the sea.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.