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Swallowed by the Cold
By Jensen Beach
Graywolf Press, 2016. 191 pages
In the first story of Jensen Beach's moving but sometimes potholed collection, middle aged Swede Rolf Strand plays the best tennis of his life to beat neighbor Frederik Holm, who though he lost an arm to diabetes was once a French Open semifinalist. Despite the win, Rolf is distracted by melancholy thoughts about his son Lennart and loses control of his bike. He dies slouched and bloodied beside a canal while waving at passengers aboard a passing boat for help. They think he's greeting them and wave back.
Rolf is the ferryman to characters located mostly in secondary Swedish cities and suburbs. From Rolf, Jensen moves on to the people aboard the passing boat, and then to Lennart, mapping out a wide and interlocking ensemble in the mold of a Robert Altman movie. Each story is a flashcard, a snippet, which suits Jensen's terse and elegant prose. His best work lays out middle class hopes and crises in dispassionately fatalistic style.
Life is a form of incapacitation. In one story, office walls are crowded with "cheap prints of bad artwork, idyllic Nordic landscapes made claustrophobic and menacing behind dusty plastic frames." In another, a man named Jacob is "never frustrated, rarely angry, but always sad." Elsewhere, Louise dwells on "car accidents, robberies, disease" and, while drunk, decides a new apartment occupant is the daughter of a former lover. She isn't.
Jensen's gloominess is an invasive fog. In its thrall, confrontation is rare, secrets are many, and glum seepage constant. In "The Ships of Stockholm," nothing happens fast until, out of nowhere, its flirting characters see that a ferry's ablaze and that people are leaping overboard. In "The Right-Hand Traffic Diversion" a fastidious man loses his wife in a crowd. Panicked, he is "swallowed by the cold." In the final story, Lennart, who is nagged by "a sense of finality, of permanence," notices in passing that a hotel TV emits "dim shaky light." It's the light that gnaws at each of Jensen's 15 northern exposures.
Reviewed by Book Staff