I loved so much about Jim Tomlinson’s short story collection, Things Kept, Things Left Behind. It was one of those reads that I felt compelled to carefully portion out so as to not have it be over too quickly. I wanted to savor it. I hated for it to end.
The book has a beautiful, poignantly apt cover design with a number of excellent blurbs on the back, but one blurb in particular expressed what I found most to love about the collection. George Saunders wrote, “Jim Tomlinson uses the traditional gifts of the writer–love of place, a keen eye for the telling detail, unflagging interest in the human heart–to bring to life a very specific and eye-opening version of America, particularly working-class, rural America…his care for these people and his generosity toward them are evident on every page.”
I have actually put off writing this review for over a week, because what I most wanted to do was point to Saunders’ words and shout, “What he said!” But that would do a disservice to all of Jim’s hard work and I truly was transported by the very real characters and their situations, so who better to discuss the book than me? I am a product of that “working-class rural America” that Saunders mentions and when Cass (in the the half-title story “Things Kept”) says, “When he comes to see Ma, don’t matter if it’s a hundred degrees, Dale here is wearing long sleeves so she don’t see them tattoos he’s got drawed on his arms,” I KNOW her. She is utterly, absolutely real to me.
And in particular, I was impressed by how the women in Things Kept, Things Left Behind are portrayed. In the reading, I had the sense that, while writing, Jim allowed them to live and breathe. They have flaws and desires and idiosyncracies that allowed me to see and appreciate them, warts and all–like real people. I think that can be difficult enough when we are creating characters; doubly so when we are creating characters across a gender divide. But there is no gender divide in this collection. Men cheat, women cheat, men love obsessively, women love obsessively, both succeed, both fail. It is such an even-handed look at what makes us human.
I am also so grateful that Jim resisted the urge that so many (particularly southern) writers of late have embraced: the urge to gently mock their characters. A fascinating article by Jonathan Dee (in Esquire?) opened my eyes to this, and ever since I have been sensitive to the notion that we, as writers, should respect our characters. As storytellers, you could even say we have a duty to let the characters show us their character, without a wink-wink, nudge-nudge by the author, over the character’s head. I have been guilty of this in my own writing, but I have to say it was such a pleasure to read a book of stories in which the characters are allowed to blunder and fumble and generally be human, without commentary (spoken or unspoken) from the author. “They are who they are,” Tomlinson seems to say. “I just write about ’em, I don’t judge ’em.”
And thank goodness for that.