Under the Light
Harry Drake is Sam Michel’s strangely endearing protagonist in the fifteen stories of UNDER THE LIGHT. Irascible, steely-eyed cynic and plaintive, wounded romantic, he is capable of proposing marriage to a beer-toting waitress the morning his wife gives birth (“I Am Not So Old”). But also shown is his tenderness for his wife, and his perplexity at the gulf growing between them in “Something New.” One finds a very different Harry in “Seeing Hunter Creek,” in which the boy fourteen years old promotes, protects, and nurtures his aging, one-armed mentor-companion Pete as if he were the man’s father and guide.
In the book’s title story, Harry confronts his own emerging manhood—or is it still boyhood?—during a backyard baseball game that pits him against his wiry, boisterous and commanding mother. The story examines Harry’s struggle to escape and his reluctance to emerge from under her heavy, loving wing. With a lyricism and exactness that is disquieting and eerie, this wonderful baseball story takes a look at a “classic matchup”: “Here was Harry on the mound, there his mother behind the plate, the both of them alone and under the light at last!”
Harry’s fate is evasion of life and pursuit of life. At times he wanders on the outskirts of his own life, where the lives of mysterious strangers gently or horrifically touch him, and he spies on their truths while averting his eyes at certain terrible moments. “Willows” explores the themes of voyeurism and the loss of innocence. Young Harry accepts a landscaping job from a strange old colonel rumored to be some sort of monster, and also accepts this man’s forceful warning not to meddle in the dark doings of a hermaphroditic boy, an anonymous man, and the school bully, who regularly meet near the old man’s house. In the end there is murder, fear outgrown, and the lingering laughter of the colonel, “bending at his silver-furred waist” as his voice even after death hisses from the willows to Harry that some things are best kept secret.
Like most of Michel’s stories, “Willows” is rendered in accomplished, poetic movements that startle and satiate the reader. Similarly, “The Naming,” a first friendship-first love story, is like a deftly painted watercolor of pastoral greens and blues, ending in unexpected tones of sepia and loss. “The Route” also looks at loss and the past recaptured, as Harry follows his pre-alcoholic twelve-year-old son along a snowy paper route he once covered himself as a boy. Harry Drake follows his heart and intuitions, but he is forever a fugitive from his experiences—both wounded by and wounding others—even though he is gentle and humane. Sam Michel’s lovely and darkly moving portraits of Harry create a presence through which the reader may recognize life’s intricacy and intensity, its bleakness and pain, its zest and stubborn humor.