Paul Eggers, Professor of Creative Writing at Chico State University, explores the dislocations of human relationships in "The Departure Lounge" ($24.95 in paperback from Ohio State University Press). Available locally at Lyon Books in Chico, this collection of five long literary short stories won the Ohio State University Prize in Short Fiction.
The main characters each experience what Eggers calls "that horrible ignorance about what was really going on." In "This Way, Uncle, Into the Palace," the old narrator, a Vietnamese teacher now living in Fresno, recalls the horrible death of his autistic daughter in Saigon back in 1975. Had Lai been driven to destruction by her father?
Chess unites two of the pieces, "Monsieur le Genius" (about an American chess hustler in Burundi) and "Hey" (the story of a young chess prodigy in Tacoma, Washington whose brother is killed in Vietnam in 1969). In the first, the narrator, who had assumed a phony name, finds his phony life upended; in the second, a chess whiz's mentor reveals a scarred reality. "We live implausibly," the narrator thinks, "but admit to only the plainest of sins."
The reader returns to Burundi in "Won't You Stay, Please?" Neil, twice married and now single, had come to study a local language in the midst of a genocide-tinged country. "Hutu boys high on contact cement murdered busloads of Tutsis, then Tutsi soldiers razed entire Hutu villages. . . ." Neil is a muzungu, a foreigner. In Burundi he would find no "fresh start."
The longest story, "What's Yours, What's Mine," takes Rueben and his wife Maureen ("a woman on the cusp of fifty") back to Bidong, a tiny island in Malaysia where they had been aid workers decades earlier with the Vietnamese boat people. The couple is reuniting with Tony and Stella, who with Rueben had worked with the refugees before Maureen had arrived. There are hints of a different kind of life "pre-her," but Maureen reasons that "when you had a life together, that life could survive small acts of cowardice and sabotage. That life could absorb small betrayals." But what if a betrayal is not so small?
These stories are incisive studies of the inhabitants of the departure lounge, where everyone is carrying plenty of baggage.