Dina Guidubaldi, How Gone We Got: Stories
Publisher: Queen’s Ferry Press
2015, 211 pages, paperback, $17
IMAGINE YOU NEVER escape the town where you grow up. Or say you do get out, but bring with you all the baggage of your youth—the penchant for artists with more facial hair than substance, a love of bad beer, the self-sabotaging qualities that kept you back for so long in the first place—so you haven’t really left at all. In Dina Guidubaldi’s first story collection, How Gone We Got, Guidubaldi often deals with ordinary themes like leaving or being left; however, the strange, off-kilter territory of her stories is like nothing we have ever seen before. Through their dark comedy and cynical outlook, Guidubaldi’s humorous stories delight, mystify, and sometimes terrify.
Like any collection, some stories are stronger than others. While the first two stories are good exercises in alternating points of view and establish the collection’s focus on coming and going, Guidubaldi really hits her stride by the third story, “The Love in Your Mouth,” in which a young couple, Max and Wendy, have been holding it together, more or less successfully, since Wendy nearly bit off Max’s tongue many months ago in New York. Moving to Florida resuscitates the relationship but neuters Max, who has become predictable “like the blind and frilly shrimp that float toward the surface of the Indian River, only to be confused by a cheap flashlight and snagged with a net.” Even when telling the familiar story of a relationship in a rut, Guidubaldi’s prose singes and sings—from line to line, she writes with wit, beauty, and clarity. I have never wanted to eat a jellyfish, and “The Love in Your Mouth” makes clear the dangers of doing so, but the writer makes them sound so delicious: “The jellyfish are beautiful once the sand is brushed away and they are untangled—a brilliant, see-through midnight color, a complicated blue.” These jellyfish are salty and scrumptious, with magical powers that reinvigorate the lives of these characters and add seasoning to the standard literature of love and loss.
While the sea ebbs and flows, love has no place in the desiccated left-behind of a sandy desert. Guidubaldi’s “The Desert: A Field Guide” makes excellent use of the second person in a story that could have been called “How Gone You Got.” As in so many of the pieces in this collection, the narrator’s beloved will eventually pick up and blow away. And where could a person become more lost than in the desert? Readers all know the desert can be a dry, lonely place, but Guidubaldi extends the metaphor further: “You know someone has the desert in them if they wake up with sand in their ears. Sand or wind. In the mornings I’d wake up next to my husband and look. His ears went deep, but always, always there was sand. I woke him by scratching it out with my pinky. He hated that.”
Occasionally, the metaphor extends so far that we seem to have left the “real” world behind. Last paragraphs of seemingly realistic stories take sudden turns for the strange; story worlds are sometimes futuristic, dystopic, or at least a little nightmarish. “Coup de Grace” reads like a dark prophecy for post-recession America, which may be hell for the formerly privileged, but sounds like paradise for writers: “We read literary magazines in the grocery store line, we flipped the flimsy pages of The Atlantic and got paper cuts on the edges of Harper’s. Our world—at least our country—was ending, and we were busy trying to save it, to get to know it before it was gone.”
If there is a flaw in Guidubaldi’s collection, it is that stories begin to feel the same when taken as a whole—voice, tone, and characters become a little too familiar. Not all stories electrify, but to quote Guidubaldi, “occasionally there are omens that hang themselves like webs in the air.” The collection is peppered with brilliant insights and memorable stories. Read the book slowly; sample and savor.
When Dina isn’t working underground, getting in an argument, mishearing something, shopping for boots or stepping on a dog, she is writing stories, usually involving mishaps and misfortune, since we all know happiness is overrated.
A graduate of Texas State’s MFA program, Dina lives in Austin. Her work has been published in magazines including Other Voices, the Santa Monica Review, SPIN, Ninth Letter and Prairie Schooner, among others. She’s worked with American Short Fiction and Callaloo, and was a bar reviewer for the Austin American-Statesman.