There’s a lot going on up on Lookout Mountain. The battle of Chickamauga is not really over. 89-year-old Eva Bock braves traffic to walk up Lula Lake Road to deliver snail mail to President Bush protesting the war. A mainline church takes Corbett Earnshaw’s abrupt confession of disbelief as a sign and demolishes their building in order to move into a cave on the side of the mountain. A woman leaves her family one night and runs down into Chattanooga to find a makeshift communion in a homeless shelter. Oh, and there’s a whole lot of cogitating about infidelity.
Such is the world in Jamie Quatro’s collection of short stories, I Want to Show You More.
I came to Quatro’s collection after reading her most recent novel, Fire Sermon, a book that mystically-inclined readers like me will find impossible to put down. That book featured a 40-something writer from Tennessee struggling with God and a long-distance lover with whom she has broken off an affair. Those three—writer, God, and lover—are all present in these stories as well. Quatro is exploring this theme from every angle. But you’ll also find meditations on isolation, mortality, parenting, physical & psychological frailty, and healing.
Online reviewers seem to feel that much of Quatro’s writing is autobiographical. After all, she, like many of the characters, lives on Lookout Mountain, is a runner, has children, spent time in Arizona. Because of the transgressive edge of these stories, some evangelical readers are worried about her soul. Quatro herself complains about this perception in a recent Paris Review article and a lecture at the Festival of Faith and Writing in which she talked about an all-men’s book club that shifted uncomfortably when she came to visit until one of them blurted out, “What did your husband think of this book?”
Behind that question is a fear of the writer’s freedom to explore the traces of desire and embodiment. In her FFW lecture, Quatro quoted Richard Rohr who calls such fear more Plato than Jesus. “Flesh cannot be bad, as it is the ongoing hiding place of God,” Rohr says. Quatro is determined to mine the wisdom of the God-haunted flesh for all that it can reveal.
In one of the most affecting stories, “Sinkhole,” a teenaged cross-country runner with a debilitating fear that a hole is opening up in his chest has a transformative experience with a girl whose own physical story is marked by cancer and a colostomy. Quatro handles the inner lives of the two with sensitivity but holds back on a potential happy ending. Despite their close encounter which will mark both of them, there is still isolation and a ‘not quite’ consummation.
In another story, “The Anointing,” a wife brings in a team of church elders to anoint her depressed husband with oil only to be incapacitated herself by her inability to truly save her family. In yet another, a woman’s lover becomes a decomposing wax figure that comes to dominate the relationship with her husband.
There’s more than a little Flannery O’Conner here. Characters come in at angles and seem motivated by strange spiritual quests. But Quatro is paying attention to every plane. Like the state line that runs invisibly between the Tennessee and Georgia sides of Lookout Mountain, (and which characters occasionally note, especially in the story ‘Georgia the Whole Time”), there are boundaries not seen with the naked eye. If you do have eyes to see, what you find may be disturbing. Ugly even. But “the flaw beneath the flaw is the failure to notice.”
That’s how Quatro put it in her FFW lecture. The book’s title is in earnest. She wants to show us more. And the virtue of these tales is that if we could just pause long enough with her to notice the fulness of this human thing with its yearning, god-like fire, we might be overcome by something beyond the bounds. Something more like…wonder.