Book Review: The Great Escape
Erin Pringle isn't sure what to do once she gets to where she's going
Reviewed by Kimberley Jones, Fri., June 12, 2009
Erin Pringle's stories aren't quick skims. They aren't even one-read-onlys. They are dense, experimental, thick with dread and the dead. But it wasn't until she started assembling her first collection, The Floating Order (which originated as her Master of Fine Arts thesis at Texas State University), that the full effect of her stories hit her.
"I was surprised how dark they all were all together." She laughs. "Like, one dark story, you write it. And then you write another. But then when they're all together, [you think]: 'Oh no. This is bad. This might be too dark.'"
I ask her if all the happy stories are on the cutting room floor somewhere.
Another laugh. "No, I don't have any."
The Floating Order does have a morbid bent – infanticide, kidnapping, and a rabid family goat all figure prominently – but when Pringle thinks a moment, she cites her story "Why Jimmy" as an instance of happiness and humor in her writing. It should be pointed out that "Why Jimmy" is about, among other things, abandoned children, heroin-hooked authority figures, and the shocking dispatch of a kitchen knife. It should also be pointed out that it's a terrific story, thrilling and inventive, which is why it won second place in the 2008 Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest. (You can read it online on our Books blog, Under the Covers, at austinchronicle.com/books.) Pringle nails the narrator's sly child's voice and incorporates, as with so many of her stories, dazzling leaps of kid logic. It's a notoriously tricky business, the truthful rendering of a child's point of view, and her mastery of it is all the more surprising given her background. Her parents had her when they were in their 40s, when her older siblings were already full-grown. Her mother retired after Pringle's birth, and her father, who suffered from depression, had to quit his job, which meant she grew up with both parents in the house, all the time.
"I was just in this world of adults. I'd go to coffee with my parents twice a day, at 7am and 4pm, and so I was the little kid with all the people who had retired, all the 50- and 60- and 70-year-old people. I was having conversations with them. While little kids – I guess normal ones –were doing whatever they do, I was listening to [adults] talk and stacking milk creamers from the little diner dairy dish."
She grew up in a tiny factory town on the border of Indiana and Illinois, and that isolation both influenced her writing –the Midwest, economic depression, and limited options are all recurring themes in her stories –and fueled in her an "escape syndrome."
"I saw lots of my friends ... getting sucked in and not being able to get out. They'd get pregnant early. And the 1950s American dream still kind of exists, in a desperate, terrible way, in small towns."
Pringle did get out, to Chicago and Columbia College's fiction writing program, but she felt stymied by its restrictively traditional approach – Steinbeck stuff, she calls it – and transferred to Indiana State University, where she had taken classes while still in high school. She says her experimental stories continued to bewilder her classmates but that she started to see a trend in the feedback. "'Good image,' 'good image,' 'good image.' And because I kept getting 'good image' comments, then I just kept doing that, you know, until it finally started working.
"[The workshop experience] was very reminiscent of a small-town experience –you know, no matter what people think, you just keep doing it, because you gotta get out. 'Just gotta get out' has been my goal since probably age 10. ... This is what you have to do to get out: Just keep doing what you do, what you like to do."
I ask her what happens when she gets to the place where she doesn't have to "get out" anymore, when she doesn't have to get through this to get to somewhere else. She does, after all, have her first book being published this very month.
"I don't know. 'Cause this was always the goal – just get a book published. That's it. That's what I kept pushing everything toward. And now that it's coming out, it's a very strange experience, because I don't know what to compete with anymore.
"So I'm trying to figure out how to get around it. What to do next. You know, like how to figure out a new finish line." She laughs again, a sunny, self-deprecating laugh. "That's really cliché. 'Find a new finish line.' Here I am in my tracksuit. Run, run, run!"
Erin Pringle's book release party for The Floating Order takes place on Monday, June 15, 7pm at the Coffee Pot in San Marcos (129 E. Hopkins #100, San Marcos, www.thecoffeepotbistro.com).