Learning to Live
Chester Patterson—the eponymous narrator and the central character of Kermit Moyer’s mesmerizing collection of linked stories, The Chester Chronicles —doesn’t like his name, but since he is Chester, Jr, there’s not much he can do about it other than insist that people call him Chet. That’s not all he’s troubled about, beginning with his mother who drinks too much. He worries about his looks and whether girls will be attracted to him. He’s almost a professional worry-wart, particularly at age thirteen when we first encounter him. Then there’s further concern for his younger sister, Janet, whom he adores but is overly-protective about—and even his father’s occupation (he’s in the military) which means that the Pattersons spend a fair amount of time moving around, and Chester has to keep making new friends. The time is mostly in the late-1950’s, the heart of the Cold War.
Chester is frequently uncomfortable when he thinks about his parents’ sexuality; he’s obsessed with sex—though he shouldn’t be. A psychiatrist might identify him as anxious but, in many ways, he’s a rather normal American boy. He’s also precocious because of his love of books (especially American novels) which he devours and quotes from in order to impress girls. The titles include Huckleberry Finn, On the Road, and A Farewell to Arms, classics concerned with American masculinity, though the work Chester never mentions (Catcher in the Rye) is the novel with which his own story shares the greatest affinity. Except for one major difference.
Unlike Holden Caulfield, Chester Patterson has his initial sexual relationship with his own cousin, Frenchie, who is seventeen the summer he’s thirteen. Part of the incident is related in a story ironically titled “Learning to Smoke,” which could just as easily be called “Learning to Screw.” Frenchie first teaches Chester how to French smoke a cigarette, which inevitably leads to French kissing and finally to intercourse (related in a second story, “Call Me Mr. Blue”). All of these incidents are meticulously recorded through the deft hands of a writer’s writer, who not only savors every sentence he writes but understands the short story craft as well as any of his peers. (Moyer is the author of an earlier collection of widely-praised stories called Tumbling, published in 1988.)
After the summer’s initiation with Frenchie, as the Pattersons are driving home, there’s a telling moment when Chester—almost uncontrollable in his sadness that he probably won’t see his cousin again for a long time—begins crying, following a stop at a roadside stand. Janet said that she hoped they’ll be able to buy some cherries. Her mother responds that the season for cherries is “just about over.” And then Chester, in a truly Freudian moment, breaks down:
“Unaccountably, this strikes me as unbearably sad, as maybe even the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. But since I’m feeling so numb, it takes me by surprise to discover that tears are rolling down my cheeks. With little pattering sounds that only I can hear, they’re dropping one by one into the paper bag, like something I’m collecting, and I can’t help but wonder how long it would actually take to collect a grocery bag full of tears. Assuming, of course, that you didn’t stop crying and the bag didn’t soak through or spring a leak. A day? A month? A year? And how many bags in a lifetime? If you multiplied that by all the people who ever lived, would it be enough to fill a swimming pool? A lake? An ocean? What exactly were the mathematics of sadness? Or was that kind of emotion beyond figuring out, beyond the realm of measurements and numbers in the same way that my yearning for Frenchie seemed to be beyond anything that could possibly contain it?”
It’s a moment of pure emotion that expands to an existential understanding of a boy’s sense of his place in the world. The Chester Chronicles is chockablock with such incidents—some emotive, others purely comic—as Chester questions and agonizes about sex, religion and, above all, life. Often Moyer tosses out these quodlibets as one-liners, as Chet muses to himself or responds to the remarks of others. Other times, Moyer, the writer, jolts the reader with a startling remark such as the following opening to another short story: “Ralph Ellison has come to lunch at my fraternity house.”
But you’ll have to pick up this delicious book in order to discover why, when, and how Chester Patterson is able to process that incident into something bigger than life.
The Chester Chronicles
By Kermit Moyer
The Permanent Press, 232 pp., $28.
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. He confesses that he taught with Kermit Moyer for many years at American University.