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Review: The Sense of Touch by Ron Parsons



Highlights: These eight stories explore the variety of contemporary experience but return to common themes of revenge, relationship failure, and the search for fulfillment.
Synopsis: Parsons’s debut collection of short stories profiles the loners and failures of South Dakota, Michigan, and Minnesota.



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The wide range of characters and situations creates a sort of mosaic of modern life in the North Country. Some of the incidents are so unusual as to be unforgettable.


Sometimes wooden dialogue, unrealistic plot twists, strange imagery, clichéd romantic situations, and frustrating endings: Parsons strives for profundity but does not always succeed.

Posted November 11, 2013 by

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The eight contemporary stories in The Sense of Touch by Ron Parsons alternate first- and third-person perspectives, exploring the variety of the modern experience but returning to common themes of revenge, relationship failure, and the search for closure or fulfillment.

Unfortunately, the book opens on a weak note with “Hezekiah Number Three,” a paint-by-numbers tale linking unusual ethnic identity + family dysfunction + quirky habits + melodramatic symbolic action. Narrator Tom Isaiah tells the story of a high school acquaintance, Mushtaque Naseem Sayem, who emigrated from Bangladesh as a child after his mother died in a monsoon. Naseem went a little crazy and dropped out of MIT when his father, a physics professor at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, was accused of sexual misconduct and disappeared. The next place Naseem turned up was at his stepmother’s house, with a three-legged cat in his arms.

Tom finds out that Naseem is under psychiatric care – not a surprise given his bizarre stories and jokes, and that peculiar tendency to name maimed pets Hezekiah + number (the first being a pet pigeon at MIT that he later stomped to death). In the story’s climax, Naseem offers to take Tom on a hot-air balloon ride before his return to MIT but instead, brandishing a gun, hijacks the balloon and sails off over Crazy Horse monument, never to be seen again. The entire story, but particularly that ending, is unrealistic and overwrought, with allusions to the Icarus myth only pointing up the inadequacy of this modern take. Fairly wooden dialogue does not help, either. The title does pose a fascinating question, however: who or what is Hezekiah #3? Does it suggest that Tom has been adopted as Naseem’s pet?

“Beginning with Minneapolis” is a stronger story, and more representative of Parsons’s interest in the vicissitudes of romantic relationships. Waylon Baker is a wheat farmer whose wife Evie Lund left him to go live in the Twin Cities. Though she works in a flower shop, her true vocation is as a poet. Every so often she goes back to the farm for sex with Waylon, but on this occasion he comes to meet her in the city instead, where they go to see a teen prodigy folk singer at a club. Waylon admits that if Evie had come to visit him as planned, he was going to kill her – he has even dug her grave already. At the story’s conclusion, they return to the farm together and make love in the fresh-dug grave, in an alarming blend of sex and death. There is plenty to ponder in this story, though the suspicion remains that it is still just a concatenation of random events.

The title story is another first-person narrative, this time told in an inconsistent present tense. A Texas boy has gone to study creative writing in Minnesota, leaving behind his girlfriend and her paralyzed brother, only to discover that one of his new professors is the high school teacher who propositioned him a few years back. It is clear that Parsons is trying to make a point about the power of bodily presence: “Absence disembodies. If a person isn’t there for you to touch, they are not real.” And yet making lasting human connections does not depend on the body as such – as Parsons reveals through the rather obvious symbol of the paralyzed brother. All along, these stories are striving for profundity but actually adding up to very little; the twists feel forced and the imagery strange.

Rapid City, South Dakota, seen from Rapid Valley

Rapid City, South Dakota, seen from Rapid Valley

In “The Black Hills,” Daniel Hopewell is on a road trip to visit his blind friend Ed (another none-too-subtle symbol for the complications of physical existence), whose Lakota girlfriend Dawn is in the process of divorcing her abusive husband. Ed constantly complains about how much his condition sucks, but seems to manage quite well all the same, even joining Dan and Dawn for hiking and river jumping in the hills. The best scene comes when the trio stops for a picnic lunch of sandwiches and wine and Dawn consciously echoes the language of the Eucharist: “From now on, whenever I do this, I’m going to remember you.” The slight air of mockery dissipates as Dan tells a story about karaoke success with his softball team; that night he sleeps with Dawn before heading back to California. Once again, the story ends on a reversal and an uncertainty. Parsons wants to make the reader think, but all too often his stories do not reward the effort.

By far my favorite story was “As Her Heart is Navigated.” For once the protagonist is a young woman, Haley Noonan, who wakes up with a hangover one October morning in Minneapolis to find herself covered in spider bites – and the world altered by a four-foot blizzard. She is due at a Halloween party that evening and puts on her nurse’s costume in advance, but as she is digging her car out of the snow she decides to check that the owner of the little wooden house opposite is alright. The home belongs to Greta Lutsen, an 83-year-old piano teacher who collapses in the kitchen as she serves Haley a bowl of hot soup. Haley rides with her in the ambulance, still (ironically) dressed as a nurse in the scrubs that her boyfriend Clint’s mother lent her. Though I have labeled this one my favorite story, it still has that trademark unsatisfying ending: Clint has been a background presence in the story, but suddenly it’s imperative for Haley to break things off with him. That clichéd romantic subplot takes over what had been a sweet story of unexpected connection.

“Big Blue” (a recent ‘story of the week’ choice on literary app Storyville) is, in some ways, the most different and intriguing of the stories, structured as a first-person monologue from a violent, disturbed young man who is tempted to smash everything with the title’s baseball bat. He has suffered many losses: his mother died in childbirth, his twin brother in a car accident, and finally his grandfather, his primary guardian, died when the boy was 16. Yet the story adds on two irrelevant facts: first, the boy is a Yankees fan despite living in Kalamazoo, Michigan his whole life; and second, he and his grandfather used to pay annual visits to the zoo to see an albino tiger they dubbed “His Whiteness.” What is the significance of these random pieces of information? Once again I sense the author grasping for symbolic meaning but not quite achieving it.

The main character of “Moonlight Bowling” is Virgil Coleman, deputy mayor of Minneapolis. For the story’s purposes, it is crucial to note that Virgil is an African American. He keeps running into his former barber, Henry Lemonte, at the YMCA gym and the bowling alley, where Lemonte takes the $300 kitty in a midnight bowling championship. Lemonte has a half-black grandson, Emery, and keeps suggesting that Virgil could be a role model for the boy. Virgil is uncomfortable being placed in this position, even though he does then save the boy from drowning on a river tubing trip to Wisconsin. Still, he will not promise to look after Emery when Lemonte reveals he has had dreams predicting his imminent death. As was the case with “As Her Heart is Navigated,” a touching story of unforeseen relationships is somewhat spoiled by Virgil’s rocky relationship with girlfriend Chantel. It is as if Parsons feels every story needs a romantic plot, so shoehorns one in each time. In practice, though, this means that most of the stories seem to have irrelevant material. Especially in short stories, every word must be essential; every element, character, and subplot has to earn a place in the condensed setting.

The final story, “Be Not Afraid of the Universe,” is among the most compelling in the book. It begins as a recollection of childhood in Dearborn, Michigan – perhaps an autobiographical tale? – but then morphs into something much more interesting. I shall leave it at that so as not to ruin the narrative revelation, but will simply say that this story, finally, manages to pull off a truly great twist.


So the collection goes out with a bang, but looking back over it I do not see many of the other stories rising above mediocrity. For every line that jumped out at me for its freshness (“crashed into bits like a porcelain dream,” “Twin Cities urbaculture…seemed at times both bubble bath and bog,” “drifting slowly like an unattended gondola,” and “planting each step with crustacean deliberation”), there was something to make me cringe, whether that be an instance of too-obvious symbolism (seeing a man in a ridiculous hat walking an incongruous dog leads a character to exclaim, “Doesn’t anyone fit in anywhere, anymore?”), a pointless detail (which Seinfeld episode is showing), or a ‘deep’ but meaningless conclusion (“We are feathered by our memories”).

I feel conflicted in the end: I can see what Parsons is trying to accomplish here, but all too often I see the stories falling short of his lofty aims. With a lot more practice, I think he might join the ranks of some of the great American writers of ‘dirty realism’ (see my review of Richard Ford’s Canada for a further discussion of that literary genre), but on the basis of The Sense of Touch, that level is out of reach for now.


(Photo credit: M. Mingda Liu [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.)

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Rebecca Foster

An American transplant to Reading, England – a fitting place for a fiendish bibliophile. After six years as a library assistant, I am recklessly embarking on a freelance writing career. I review books for Kirkus Indie, The Bookbag, For Books' Sake, We Love This Book, and Bookmarks magazine, and also volunteer with Greenbelt Festival's literature program. I read everything from theology to popular science, but some favorite genres are literary fiction, biography and memoir, historical fiction, graphic novels, and nature writing. Check out all my articles.


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