Floyd Skloot has written several books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, but “Cream of Kohlrabi,’’ his 16th book, is his first short story collection.
Divided into three sections, the book includes stories about athletes and wannabe athletes, a three-story middle section peopled with a hodgepodge of characters, and a final group of stories about the elderly and the dying. Of these 16 stories, Skloot’s most successful combine pathos with humor, farce with terror. His most convincing characters suffer from some sort of physical illness: heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and other dementia that accompanies old age - Skloot himself is disabled by viral-borne brain damage.
The section about athletes includes “The Wings of the Wind,’’ where the basketball career of the gentle Romanian-born giant Isaac Berg ends when he’s stricken by a heart disorder. His adoptive Jewish father wanted Isaac to go pro more than the son wanted, but eventually he accepts Isaacs’s life decision after the basketball career doesn’t work out. The best of the catch-all middle section is a 1950s coming-of-age story about a boy who witnesses his powerful father getting shaken down by a mobster.
But Skloot’s best stories are about the elderly. They take place in retirement homes or under hospice care, where the characters face death sometimes with bravery and pragmatism, sometimes with delusion and optimism.
Old Ben Dodge is diagnosed with lung cancer in “Plans, ’’ and his relatives are coming to help him die. But Dodge has other plans: going on a fishing trip to Alaska, attending a 50th class reunion, visiting France. He’s unafraid of dying and trusts only his social worker. Soon, though, he begins a slide, confusing his daughter with his dead wife, hallucinating that the house is hissing and fairies cover the wall.
The title story finds 89-year-old Ike, a concentration camp survivor, using the skills he learned behind barbed wire to survive at Shorefront Manor. He’s generally successful at leaving the past behind him, but is occasionally confronted by shadows from other days, and eventually the kohlrabi soup he’s fed triggers a memory of fear: “a dangerous mixture of elements’’ like that served in the camps.
Eighty-two-year-old Mr. Wade tries to find his wife Dorothy in “Alzheimer’s Noir.’’ He insists she’s the one who has Alzheimer’s. He becomes a detective of sorts, searching for her in his mind among old memories that take him to the Dance Pavilion in 1945, to a UFO sighting in Portland in 1947, and to Mount St. Helen’s in 1980.
Esther Myerson’s in a wheelchair at the Epstein Retirement Center in “The Tour.’’ She forgets what she says and does from day to day and has difficulty figuring out where she is. She insists that her daughter take her on a tour of Long Island. Soon, Esther strikes up a relationship with Fred, the home’s “chief playboy,’’ and invites him along - if only Esther could remember inviting him.
Norma Corman in “Let Us Rejoice’’ has Parkinson’s disease, and she “time travels.’’ Now in Jacobson Care Home, she wants to invite Harry Belafonte to the home for entertainment night. She remembers attending his concert long ago in 1959 and suffering her one big public humiliation. Shortly after, her husband dies of a heart attack and her son runs off to Amsterdam, and Norma believes her indiscretion is responsible for both.
The section about the elderly makes the book, and this collection would’ve been much stronger if it consisted of just those stories about the elderly, the dying, and the infirm of any age. Skloot knows suffering, real suffering, first hand, and it’s evident in his graceful and understated writing. These stories are poignant, ingeniously witty; they’re inspiring without dripping literary sap. As you read them, you get the feeling that Skloot has suffered the anguish of his characters, that he and they face terror with compassion, humor, and a poetic sort of bravery.
Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at email@example.com or through his website at josephpeschel.com.