I didn’t like every story in Jack Harrell’s collection of short stories, A Sense of Order and Other Stories. But a few of them have stuck with me over the past few months, occasionally surfacing at the shoreline as the cognitive tide recedes just before sleep.
“Godsight” explores burdensome compassion. A man suddenly becomes extremely attuned to the sorrows of every person he encounters, from the teenage mother at the grocery store to his colleagues at the college where he works. God gives him a new kind of vision that makes him frightened to even pray: “Kneeling at my bed, I cleared my throat and had the distinct impression that my heart was about to be drawn through the eye of a needle” (87). He can’t attend a meeting at the college without the fears, secret sins, and deep sorrows of those surrounding him crowding out his own thoughts, demanding attention, demonstrating vulnerability. Eventually he utters a devilish prayer that should haunt many of us: “Dear God, blind me to the pain of others” (92).
“Grandma Ruckman’s Dreams” explores dementia. A young couple brings an eighty year old mother into their home. She tells stories, relates memories that slide from the nostalgic to the frightening: “She said years ago the men in Noble held a weekly poker game at a cabin in the woods outside of town. She said one night her and a girlfriend snuck out there and the men invited them in. She was just fifteen, she said. I didn’t let her finish the story” (105). In the midst of the shocking revelations mixed with scriptural imagery and small-town happenings, the old woman sums things up with a line that haunts many of us: “There’s a lot of things that’s left upset in this world” (107).
“The Trestle” explores dissatisfaction. A middle-aged man remembers his boyhood friends, “They’d frighten themselves with stories that boys wanted to believe [about space aliens, Bigfoot, or wild animals], oblivious to the real dangers they’d face someday as men: bad backs and dead-end jobs, marriages and mortgages, timetables and never enough money” (35). When mundanity looms large he discovers a note which plays on the dissatisfaction with a question that haunts many of us: “Do you ever wish for something different?” (33). Other notes follow, as does their author, a strange man smoking cigarettes in the dead of night on an old train bridge with a Faustian bargain for the asking.
Harrell is a Mormon author, but not all of the stories include distinctly Mormon elements. A few of the ones that do tilt too far in didactic directions for my taste, although usually in a way that complicates rather than reinforces typical Latter-day Saint perspectives. The element I appreciated most about Harrell’s writing is his ability to distill haunting ruminations into one-liners that echo in my mind long after I put the book back on the shelf.
“Dear God, blind me to the pain of others.”
“There’s a lot of things that’s left upset in this world.”
“Do you ever wish for something different?”
The stories that back these lines up give them a weight you might try lifting.
A Sense of Order and Other Stories
by Jack Harrell
$24.26. hardback, $6.00 Kindle.