Before reading “Late Breaking,” I had never encountered the paintings of Canadian artist Alex Colville (even Minnesotans tend not to know much about Canadian culture), so I owe K.D. Miller a double debt of gratitude for introducing me to Colville’s work and for writing a mesmerizing suite of stories I just couldn’t put down.
Although the stories in “Late Breaking” can be read as self-contained units, a web of connections unites them as the characters (mostly 60 or older) appear in new contexts in one another’s stories while coming to terms with aging bodies, loneliness and isolation, death, heartbreak and, at times, redemption.
Does that description — especially the mention of aging — make “Late Breaking” sound sedate or bloodless? Let me assure you, it is not. Each of the 10 stories in the collection was inspired by a Colville painting; Miller notes feeling “inspired — almost driven — to use these paintings as visual writing prompts” because of their evocative nature and their frequent “eerie, chill-down-the-spine effect” — which is as good a description of these stories as the paintings they link to.
One of the pleasures of this collection is examining these enigmatic paintings before reading their affiliated stories, considering the possibilities opened by the images, perhaps pondering the “Colville moment — captured just before or after something happens.” What will happen or just happened? Who are these people? What’s the back story?
And then come the stories themselves, which are remarkably good: brave and unsentimentally empathetic. Predictable tropes of aging underpin the narration: the tolls of aging on body and mind, isolation (often self-induced), disappointment, unfulfilled promise, estrangement from children or spouses, the burdens of a past that continually haunts the present, reverberating psychically and physically. In Miller’s capable hands, these familiar themes become fresh, even raw, pulsing with sexuality and longing and anger or casting a cold eye on all the preoccupations of a younger self in a younger world.
In the essay that follows the stories, Miller quotes an entry from her journal when she turned 65: “It’s not so much a case of all passion spent as all passion known.”
While each of the stories works as a stand-alone, the stories mutually illuminate one another as the reader plays detective, discovering connections that flesh out the characterizations and drop, like puzzle pieces, into place. (Oh, so he’s the guy who broke Jill’s heart.) Before writing “Late Breaking,” Miller toyed with writing a murder mystery, and traces of the genre — even, indeed, a murder and its survivors — add to the reader’s pleasure.
“Late Breaking” is by turns tender, comic (a number of the characters are writers, which offers opportunity for satire), sad, uncompromising, horrifying and redemptive. The Gothic (think Shirley Jackson and William Faulkner) is never far away. Best of all, for all the seeming familiarity of its themes, the stories are never predictable. Never.
Patricia L. Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.
By: K.D. Miller.
Publisher: Biblioasis, 278 pages, $14.95.