Book reviewer Scott D. Southard considers the new book from Michigan author Jim Ray Daniels.
Ray Bradbury is an idol among science fiction fans. Generations of readers know him for sci-fi classics like "The Martian Chronicles", "The Illustrated Man", and "Fahrenheit 451." But my favorite book of his has always been "Dandelion Wine." While reading the new collection of short stories by Michigan writer Jim Ray Daniels, my mind kept returning to it. The stories in Daniels’s new book "Eight Mile High" have a lot in common with Bradbury’s American classic.
Both "Dandelion Wine" and "Eight Mile High" try to capture moments in a person’s life and hometown through stories. In "Dandelion Wine," Bradbury looks back at his hometown through the fictional Green Town, Illinois, an idyllic place with the possibility of wonder around every corner. But Daniels isn’t wearing Bradbury’s rose-colored glasses when he remembers Warren, Michigan. His world is hard, and his characters are surrounded by drugs, violence, and regret. It’s about as far from the suburban bliss of Green Town as you can get.
There are 14 stories in "Eight Mile High," but they aren’t totally independent of each other. Every story is tied to the others through intermingling characters and plots or references to situations from earlier tales. It is a fun device when successful and I wish Daniels could have taken it further. One problem is that since most of the tales are in first person, you can’t always tell who is speaking or if you’ve heard their voice before. It seems like Daniels wants it both ways: he wants the stories to connect to each other, but also wants the reader to recognize each story as its own world. It can be a tad confusing.
My favorite story in the collection is “Pearl Diving.” It is about first loves and first losses. The story’s young narrator is secretly dating Marlene, but her family doesn’t approve because of their ages. They meet up to steal kisses while her parents are away from the house. Of course, that doesn’t stop her neighbor Rita Wakowski from spying on the two. Everything about the story from the kids to the relationship is sweet and innocent until a tragic fire changes everything.
Another complaint I have with Daniels’ writing is that he seems to come from the “write what you know” camp. While a lot of writers stand by that rule, thinking it brings a sense of realism and truth to their writing, I think it can take away a writer’s creative spark. You lose the unpredictability that emerges when a writer steps out of their comfort zone. So while there were really no surprises for me in the collection, Daniels did make up for it with some of his own unique literary tricks in the work. He even appears in one of his own stories, but I won’t spoil the fate of his doppelganger here.
"Eight Mile High" is Jim Ray Daniels’ love song to his childhood and hometown. He sees it for what it is, a rustbelt city with poverty and struggles, but still manages to find beauty there. Warren, Michigan might not be the charming and idyllic paradise of Bradbury’s "Dandelion Wine," but to Daniels, the city is something even better. It’s home.
Scott Southard is the author of the new novel "Permanent Spring Showers" and "A Jane Austen Daydream". You can follow his writing via his blog "The Musings and Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard" at sdsouthard.com.