Glory Days by Melissa Fraterrigo is a raw piece of fiction about the scarred and wounded lives of people lost in the dying small town of Ingleside, Nebraska.
It is sort of a novel inasmuch as it could be described as a novel told in stories or as a collection of related stories. And it has some of the usual imperfections of such variations on the usual form. There are a variety of tones among the fourteen stories (chapters) that, at times, collide somewhat awkwardly with each other. There are confusing time gaps and plot details that would probably be clearer in the context of a straight-ahead novel.
Part of the problem may be that Glory Days is Fraterrigo’s first book-length work of fiction, and she’s still finding her voice.
Everyone in this book is damaged goods — from Luann, the adopted girl whose mother is newly dead in the opening story, to Teensy, her fire-scarred father, to Footer, an orphan who came into the world when a crazy woman sliced his mother open with a knife to steal him from her womb. (One story, “Footer,” devoted to the relationship between him and Luann, originally appeared in the Tribune’s Printers Row Journal in 2014.)
Even the ghosts are tormented spirits. Luann’s mother is seen walking the fields; Teensy gives chase but to no avail. A ten-year-old boy, murdered, finds he has no choice but to hang around the Glory Days amusement park, an increasingly tawdry scene where local people come from far and wide to forget the dingy everyday existence that they are forced to endure.
“What’s so funny, Mommy”
It’s at Glory Days where Fredonia the Great, a midwife and folk doctor from a line of women skilled in those arts, is the big draw with an aberrant talent that is the cross she bears in life. She can touch a person, live or dead, and feel the person’s final experiences
Fredonia discovered this skill when, on her rounds, she came upon a police crime scene where the body of another murdered child had been found.
“When I placed my hands beneath her bent collarbone, my eyes rolled back and I was transported.”
What she saw and felt were the child’s last thoughts and emotions as she was being held a prisoner and awash with confusion — that, and then the end:
“Mommy, she called. Then thought the word, saw the letters hung up in her mind, great black soldiers that would rescue her with their sharpened bayonets and take her home, feed her a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, pour her glass after glass of the coldest milk; a great grasp tightened around her neck, and everything became ultra vivid for a moment, maybe three, her mother’s face — Brittany saw her mother’s eyes all crinkled up with laughter, her soft-mouth open, pink tongue nestled between teeth. What’s so funny, Mommy? Brittany wondered. Tell me.”
“The biggest hug”
It says something about the everyday America Underworld of the small Nebraskan town at the center of “Glory Days” that kidnapped children are a theme through Fraterrigo’s stories. One of the kidnappers, who catches and releases several youngsters, says this is a gift to them:
“Think how happy folks will be to get them back. Think of them hugs…The biggest hug you ever imagined. Afterward these kids are gonna be savored like pumpkin pie on the Thanksgiving table.”
He’s deluding himself, of course, but, in many ways, the characters who wander through “Glory Days” are all seeking the “biggest hug you ever imagined” and never finding it.
Or, finding it, learn that it is a trap snapping shut.
Patrick T. Reardon