Leah Holbrook Sackett, Catawampus in Sweetgum County (Adelaide Books, 2022)
‘Sweetgum County is a place where death lingers on the doorstep of the soul’ declares the author before we have even reached the Acknowledgements. A faint-hearted reader might turn no further.
Death is certainly ubiquitous in Leah Holbrook Sackett’s literary landscape. But her short stories (many of which first appeared in one of an impressive array of literary journals) are often more surreptitious than sinister.
The collection uses its distinctively bland setting to paint a vivid picture of small-town midwest USA. Marriage, religion, school… characters’ concerns are mostly everyday in this place of ‘suburban sprawl with limited options’, as one character, newly arrived from Kansas City, puts it.
Nostalgia and anonymity run through most of the stories. Yet Holbrook Sackett’s prose is easygoing and intimate. Her observant descriptions are full of wit and piercing little asides that masquerade under a cloak of neutrality.
Solitude is also a common theme in the collection. Although Sweetgum County appears a tight community, many of its residents are desperately lonely. In ‘Spooning’, Nancy, alone after her husband of 35 years has absconded with a younger woman, replaces physical intimacy with ice cream. ‘Let Your Uglies Take Root’ uses Kafka, Boo Radley and Nirvana to highlight the isolating effects of bullying. In ‘Most Marriages Performed’, solitude is more ambiguous: ‘Moira and David had a renewal of their wedding night… blissfully alone in their union’.
In Sweetgum County, disappointment goes hand in hand with loneliness. ‘A Spot Not Blue’, first published in Issue 1 of Briefly Zine, stages the awkward meeting of a swimming pool and a boy, ‘as he realized the water was just clear, water without color’. Meanwhile, in ‘The Rome Club’, six acquaintances partake in an old tradition, whereby ‘the last man of Sweetgum County standing wins’. Even this ultimatum does not lead to foul play. And the winner sobs rather than celebrates upon discovering his lonely victory.
On occasion, the author forays into cultural clashes. An illiberal weddings policy is ‘a small threat in an otherwise accepting culture’, according to the narrator of ‘Most Marriages Performed’. Yet backwards traditions sometimes clash with more forward-looking mores, notably in ‘The Ron Jeremy of Klingons’ where a Trekkie must leave Sweetgum County to achieve her sexual liberation. It is telling that, in the end, she isn’t tempted to stay in her new fantasy world, concluding her adventure with matter-of-fact resolution: ‘It was time I headed back home to Sweetgum County’.
Sweetgum County is both a magnet and a vacuum. Things are happening; things that should be paid more attention. As the narrator muses in ‘Going to the Chapel’, ‘It’s one of those moments that doesn’t get captured, but it should. It is the apex of video posts on Facebook, very likely to go viral. But there was no one to capture the event.’ Catawampus in Sweetgum County captures an array of events, both ordinary and extraordinary. The reader too will be pulled back for more.
Leah Holbrook Sackett, Catawampus in Sweetgum County (Adelaide Books, 2022). Available here: https://adelaidebooks.org/products/catawampus-in-sweetgum-county-short-stories