Melanie J. Cordova reviews Come By Here by Tom Noyes.
Author: Tom Noyes
Autumn House Press, 2014
Author Tom Noyes’ collection Come By Here is a demonstration of how setting ought to be treated in fiction: as a means to highlight a character’s experience of place. In this excellent collection of six stories and a novella, Noyes depicts characters around the country living their lives in the wake of humanity’s impact on nature. There is not a weak story in the bunch, and Noyes devotes time to making each character uniquely human, whether he or she is buying a house, working in reality television, or joining a church dinner group. The novella itself is divided into six sections and various people’s perspectives, all centered around the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania, where the coal mines have been on fire beneath the town since the sixties. Through Come By Here, Noyes provides the reader with such carefully-crafted prose that each sentence comes alive as if a fire were simmering just below the page.
Two of the most striking pieces in Come By Here are “Devil’s Night” and “Per League Rules.” Both are tremendous examples of the subtlety Noyes excels at when blending environmentalist elements into his work. These stories are so successful primarily because they don’t rely on the cliché condemnation of fly ash in “Devil’s Night” or smokestacks in “Per League Rules.” Instead, complex relationships between fathers and daughters are only informed by such elements. In “Devil’s Night,” for example, the protagonist Joseph is worried not about the true-life effects of fly ash, “a toxic carcinogen, a byproduct of coal-fired power plants” (57), but rather how he’s managing to get along with other parents at his daughter’s dance studio. Similarly, in “Per League Rules,” the narrator’s humiliation of his daughter demonstrates how he can never say the right thing rather than focusing on the emissions lawsuits surrounding Erie Coal and Coke that keep the first base coach away from the game. Noyes successfully depicts these men whose positions as fathers are affected as naturally as possible in their situations by things like seeing “the coke plant’s smokestacks from the ball field” (74). Exploring how environmental issues have nuanced their roles as fathers is a much more fascinating story than a blanket condemnation of Erie Coal and Coke.
Even so, the human impact on nature is important in this collection, and the closest that this impact comes to being positive is in “Bycatch,” in which an Asian carp found in Lake Erie signals the decline of the lake and the narrator’s retirement: “There’s typically not much to read in a fish’s eyes, but there’s something in how this one’s looking at me that suggests she knows she’s not just a fish. As the first Asian carp in Lake Erie, she’s a dark harbinger, a tragic omen, a nightmare come alive, a worst fear realized. She’s a problem and then some” (19). This narrator is one of the most fascinating in the entire collection, as he catches this Asian carp and subsequently cares for it, keeping it alive in his bathtub or traveling with it in a bucket in his truck. The deeply personal element of “Bycatch” is strongly depicted through one man’s relationship with the water and its creatures. Even the language of this story reflects how much the narrator feels for his surroundings, poignantly describing the surface of the lake as “a carpet of diamonds” (19).
The novella itself, for which the collection is named, stands as a worthy climax to Come By Here. Although it’s becoming increasingly popular to write about the mine fire of Centralia, Pennsylvania, Noyes’ treatment of the topic is unique. Here we see again how the central conflict doesn’t always have to surround the environmental issue, but instead creates a logical connection between it and human relationships. Sy, for example, lives in Centralia, but as a lawyer refuses to take on cases relating to the fire. Instead, he hires Vonda to help him around the office with all the work that resulting from the fire: “[P]eople were suddenly looking to take care of business, tie up loose ends, before they started the next chapters of their lives. I was up to my neck in work. Drafting wills, finalizing divorces, negotiating property line disputes” (115). The novella could easily be overshadowed by its fascinating premise, but the fires in Come By Here only nuance the human experience surrounding them. That relationship between Sy and Vonda is what’s at stake here, and only happens as a result of the mines. This is wonderful, complex storytelling that challenges the reader to think in more than one dimension.
Tom Noyes’ Come By Here is a forceful collection that weaves environmental issues with human conflict without sacrificing one to the other. A true personal experience of place emerges from these stories, in which the characters encounter a sullied Mother Nature that refuses to reduce itself to simply setting or backdrop. Come By Here is vibrant, playful, and as powerful as the fires raging beneath Centralia.