David Michael Kaplan Critical Essays


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The stories in David Michael Kaplan’s first collection, Comfort, have two primary themes: difficult, often sad, parent-child relationships and the magical or mystical. The former theme focuses on children physically and/or emotionally estranged from a parent through abandonment, divorce, misunderstanding, or death, followed by a search for reconciliation. Stylistically, Kaplan tries to practice what he teaches in his writing workshops. As his course descriptions read, “Revision is where the story gets made: we all know this hoary maxim from writers’ workshops and creative writing books.” Kaplan emphasizes the need to engage the reader’s interest right from the start, to create the imaginative “reality” of the fictional world, and to establish the authority of the narrative voice so that the reader may willingly suspend disbelief. Kaplan does not always offer a resolution to the strange connections and the unbridgeable distances between the characters he creates. For instance, in “Summer People,” which was revised for his second collection, an estranged and divorced son, who has spent his adult life trying to get away from his father’s excessively judgmental attitude, is reunited with his widower parent. Long-standing conflicts and resentments flare up, and the son has a confrontation with the father after they close up their old summer house for the last time. Still, there is no reconciliation.

“Love, Your Only Mother,” in the first collection, is the most typical variation on Kaplan’s primary theme. It is about a mother who left her daughter with the girl’s father thirty years earlier and whose only contact with her daughter, who is now married with a daughter of her own, has been the occasional bizarre and untraceable postcard from various locations in the West. The postcards—sixty-three in all—have never revealed where the mother is, only where she was sometime before. Thus, the postcards are more terrifying than comforting.

In another story, “In the Realm of the Heron,” a father takes his eleven-year-old daughter on a lakeside vacation in the wake of his wife’s sudden, accidental death. The young widower has not been able to cope with his daughter’s unexpressed rage and refusal to accept her loss. One day, the father insists on taking his daughter to an old deserted house that he discovered while rowing in a nearby lake. Instead of the idyllic retreat that he envisioned, the girl finds a dead heron nailed to a wall. In this instance, the experience provides the daughter with the opportunity to deal with her bereavement.

In “Elisabetta, Carlotta, Catherine,” a young woman, abandoned by her mother long ago, searches for a girl in a picture, which also depicts her prematurely deceased father. She thus presumes the girl in the photograph to be his illegitimate daughter. In searching for a posthumous reconciliation with her dead parent, the daughter goes to Barbados and watches a strange ritual, a voodoo ceremony involving the raising of a demon, who is supposed to be able to reveal one’s heart’s desire in exchange for something the petitioner treasures. Elisabetta offers the demon the photograph of her father and the child, for whom she has been searching on the island. The photograph is consumed in the demon’s flames, but Elisabetta does not get her wish. This story, then, like “Doe Season,” touches base with both major themes.

Indeed, Kaplan uses the surreal or the supernatural as a plot device and as a way to enrich the understanding of his stories. This becomes apparent in his treatment of dreamlike fantasies, levitation, voodoo, witchery, transformation, ghostly visitations, and the like, as in “A Mexican Tale” or “Elias Schneebaum,” two horror tales in which the supernatural provides the plot itself.


The title story of domestic realism...

(The entire section is 1594 words.)