Return Fire

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Hats off to The Johns Hopkins University Press. In a lowkey, under-the-radar way, the company has over the years been publishing noteworthy short-story collections by such fine American writers as Stephen Dixon, Judith Grossman and Jack Matthews. Recent titles have also included works by Max Apple (The Jew of Home Depot and Other Stories), Jean McGarry (Ocean State) and, now, Glenn Blake.

The latter, a senior lecturer at the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars, is represented with RETURN FIRE, a book of seven stories dealing with a little-known corner of southeast Texas's Gulf Coast which is all swamps, bayous, refineries and rice fields. In pungent, powerful prose, Blake portrays the people who try and eke out a living in that hardscrabble region, buttressed by a bit of fishing and hunting--and lashings of mezcal, wine and beer.

These working-class folk are strange, tough and profane. They are also prone to anger and violence--but can behave with dignity and humor as well. Above all, they are brutally honest with each other and with the world in general, knowing full well that, as one character says, "In this life, we don't always get what we want. We don't always get what we need. In this life, we get what we deserve."

The earth here sinks a few inches every year because of the encroaching tides; it also suffers from recurring oil-field fires. In the face of environmental disaster, poverty and frontier justice, the locals scratch and claw to stay alive, keep their demons at bay.