Time rarely moves at the speed we want it to move. We linger too long or too briefly in a present that comes too soon or too late, and afterward we’re left with what accrues: memories, regrets, consequences, longings.
For the old man in “One Dog Year,” one of several fine stories in Kevin Moffett’s collection, “Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events,” not enough time remains. An imaginary version of John D. Rockefeller at twilight, he is cushioned from age’s indignities by vast wealth, but even for him, immortality is out of reach.
“He had been regarding time with the same stubborn miserly purpose with which he regarded money for so many years,” Moffett writes. “But time, contrary to the old saying, is not money. Time is time. It is nontransferable.”
The characters in Moffett’s stories try to capture what is fleeting, like the newlywed with her disposable camera at the ready in “First Marriage,” or recapture what is long gone, like the bottoming-out alcoholic in “Lugo in Normal Time,” who wrecked his chance at happiness with his ex-wife and now can’t stay away from her, can’t stop thinking about what he threw away, and can’t keep himself from damaging what he still has: a relationship with his 14-year-old daughter.
Lena, in “English Made Easy,” lost her idyllic present with her husband’s sudden death when she was four months pregnant. A year later, she’s living in the limbo of grief and the haze of new motherhood: finding excuses for skipping her Parents Without Partners meetings, trying to guard her memories of her husband, unsure how she will transfer that knowledge to her son.
Alta, the thrice-widowed septuagenarian at the center of “In the Pines,” is better at navigating loss, better at living inside her head, where each of her husbands can keep her company. And while Moffett has placed her in somewhat dismal surroundings – a Pennsylvania retirement village — she is unusual among his characters in looking toward the future with hope. She believes she’s found a new man, and the tension each time of waiting for his return adds a delicious pleasure to her days. For us, it adds another kind of intrigue: We suspect him of being either demented or a figment of Alta’s imagination, and we want to find out what’s real.
But it is difficult to relax into Moffett’s writing, because he has a self-defeating habit of becoming enamored of vivid language for its own sake, allowing it into his stories even if it jars. In “The Big Finish,” a man looks at a group of children, and their faces, bemusingly for us, “remind him of expensive bicycles left unlocked.” In “First Marriage,” the young husband, Tad, reads the inscriptions in the motel guest book while his wife takes a shower. “He listened to Amy mashing shampoo into her hair,” Moffett writes, and suddenly – clunk – we are out of the story, wondering: What sound is that meant to describe? Does Tad have bionic ears? Several pages later, he buys beer and heads back to the motel at sunset. “The horizon was violently radiant and the wind sung with borrowed nostalgia,” we’re told, and the flamboyance of the sentence ambushes us, demanding that we focus on it, not on the imaginary world Moffett has toiled to create.
It is the kind of writing that feels like Writing, the sort of prose that suggests too intimate an allegiance to graduate programs in fiction and the values they espouse. Moffett, a Pushcart Prize winner who teaches creative writing at California State University, San Bernardino, sends up those values in the title story, about a writer whose retired father suddenly finds publishing success. But Moffett has internalized them, too, and they get in his way.