The Moss GatherersBooks
The Moss Gatherers
Publication date: March 2005
Press: StringTown Press
A sense of the bizarre unique to the Northwest runs through the stories in Moss Gatherers: a French cyclist is murdered by supposed “moss gatherers” in costal Oregon; a child has fungus growing on his forehead; and an old woman wearing a crown of lit candles plays a Victrola in a cornfield. The stories are infused with a sense of decay and stagnancy lit by surprising flickers of human decency, however small: a young girl plays boogie-woogie at her brother’s wedding, and her family dances; an old woman tries to comfort a grieving teenager; and a woman preoccupied with safety leaves her front door wide open one night for the sake of a lost bird. Through these stories, we realize that the bizarre is always at the periphery of our otherwise mundane lives, and when we meet it, we are offered the chance to be forever changed.
Stories have appeared in Northwest Review, The Seattle Review, StringTown, and The North Dakota Review. “Mirror Dress,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and another story, “Red Breast” won the Nelson Bentley Prize in Fiction.
Publication of the book is possible because of support from the Seattle Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs CityArtist Program.
I loved the understated resentment and laconic pain on display in “Inheritance”; the ways in which notions of responsibility get interrogated — and hugely charged — by the premise of “Contagion”; the class tensions uniting and fracturing the family in “Supersport” (as well as its heartbreaking last sentence.) The emotional intelligence that’s on display throughout each of the stories is one of the book’s great pleasures. And what may be most impressive is the economical deftness with which the stories generate whole worlds that are entirely persuasive and compelling: I’m thinking of those hermits migrating up from the valley floors to buy Spaghetti-O’s and instant coffee at the truck stops on the interstate; those neighborhoods where someone drunk off their ass is always yelling “woo-hoo” in their house; those countries in which the orange soda tastes more like oranges than the oranges do.
— Jim Shepard, author of Love and Hydrogen and Project X.
Briggs’ work is new, robust, vital and original. It’s also clear and funny sometimes and irreverent the way all original and adventurous fiction should be; it’s all good.
— Stephen Dixon, author of Frog and Interstate.
“Lowbrow Contours”, Jim Fest, The American Book Review, Vol. 27, No.4, 2005
Let’s think about audience—speciﬁcally, how the audience for a small press writer such as Matt Briggs, whose short story collection The Moss Gatherers is on review here, differs from the audience for a writer such as Carolyn Chute, who is ﬁrmly in the mainstream. I am using Chute for the comparison simply because she shares with Briggs a deep sympathy for those on the lower fringe of society, a ﬂavorful, comic tone, and the ability to create characters who stay indelibly strong in the reader’s mind long after closing her book.
Since I don’t have any demographic statistics, I will assume that fundamental differences in the two authors’ attitudes toward their similar material is reﬂective of attitudes with which their separate audiences would feel most comfortable.
Basically, the one obvious difference is in the authors’ view of fatefulness. Take Chute’s The Beans of Egypt, Maine (1985), where, it will be recalled, Earlene, the demi-heroine, who begins by despising the ragtag, brawling, rabbit-proliferating Bean clan, through a series of comic-pathetic catastrophes, first marries Beal Bean, who is disposed of in a hail of police bullets, then ends up shacked up with the clan paterfamilias, Reuben, the county’s orneriest, most law-despising son of a bitch. Over the whole book, there is an aura of Greek inevitability, not unlike (to broaden our reference in the American tradition) that found in Reynolds Price’s magniﬁcent A Long and Happy Life (1957). This is another book about a woman’s foreordained marriage, though instead of the rambunctious, dyspeptic style of Chute, Price adopts a measured prose and ties the fatefulness of the plot to the ongoing rhythms of nature.
However, there is a contrasting tradition available here, that of Welty and Faulkner, in which the unavoidable restrictions in poor people’s lives is balanced against their abilities to escape, at minimum, the psychological deﬁcits, such as inferiority complexes and self-destructive behavior, usually associated with the impoverished.
Briggs belongs to this second school of writing insofar as his characters always have the possibility of transcending features of their circumstances. For instance, in his “Reverse Order,” a marvel of economy and care, the narrator, Dell, begins by admitting he believes in UFOs. In fact, he says, he was abducted by one. At the reader’s ﬁrst glance, this guy is another Lil’ Abner nutjob, whose story may be amusing but hardly credible. However, this attitude will change as we hear the tale of his breaking marriage. It begins with his wife saying, as the family watches TV:
“I would like to make an announcement while I have it prepared….”
“Can’t we wait until the movie is over?”[says the son].
“Dell—I am a lesbian and I have always been gay and will remain gay despite any love I may have thought I had for you.”
It turns out the “abduction” amounts to a drunken blackout combined with Dell’s feeling afterward, abetted by his fatty man tits and the paunch overhang that hides his dick, that aliens have transformed him into a woman. His illusion is shattered when his wife rejects his plea that they stay together now that he has undergone a miraculous sex change. She laughs at him, and, “[a]s if she had thrown the throttle, my chest hair and back hair and forearm hair poured back out.” She also “somehow re-attached my lost penis.” Though it doesn’t work, the hero has, it turns out, elaborated an ingenious, imaginative last-ditch effort, employing ideas from the tabloid culture he is grounded in, to “somehow re-attach” his wife, who herself has undergone a sex (orientation) change.
Briggs’s stories are ﬁlled with desperate but game people who are coping with deaths and the wreckage of human connection by taking surprising turns where unglimpsed, if small, openings to sanity and redress can be negotiated. In “Snoqualmie,” for example, the hero thinks he sees the apparition of the dead almost-girlfriend that he has centered his life on forgetting. It turns out that the girlfriend’s coat he had seen on an unknown back had been purchased by his elderly landlady, with whom he begins a half-menacing, half-loony relationship that empowers him to get on with his life.
All of Briggs’s zigzagging stories are told with great attention to the details of lowbrow culture and the contours of the American Northwest. He gives a tremendous portrait of both in “Supersport,” in which a runaway wife takes her two kids toward a new life as they plow through the wilds of Washington state, whose natural beauties and collection of ﬂophouse motels are equally lovingly limned. Moreover, Briggs displays a deadly accurate eye for character, as in his portrait of the Bible-toting, hypocritical narrator of “Red Breast.” She is able to avoid facing her deﬁciencies even when the imprisoned serial child molester she has been visiting to minister to accuses her of being insensitive, only to be taken up short and forced to see herself by the unique act of a scarlet tanager.
But back to our opening puzzle. If I can indulge in some cracker-barrel sociology here, as far as we can extrapolate from the evidence of this small comparison, it would seem that the readers of mainstream ﬁction now—I emphasize “now,” since we have to remember that for readers of an earlier period, Welty was mainstream—want to see the poor as hapless, as victims. This sells. Smaller presses and their audiences allow that the lower class has as much a chance at transcendence, self-motivation, and creative chutzpah as anyone else. In other words, they don’t stay in their place.
No, there is no question, and I’m sure that Briggs would agree, that Chute is a powerful, inspired writer. What I imagine he would not agree with is her belief in the quietism of the rural poor, for he has shown in his stories of dishwashers, short-order cooks, waitresses, and housewives that they are spunky, determined, and unquenchably spirited, much like the teller of their tales.
Review and Links
Dodging the picturesque, postcard version of our region, the Northwest Briggs brings to his readers is at once stark and lush. From the venomous family secrets exposed in “Dry Farming,” to the backwaters of memory slowly surging through “Snoqualmie,” Seattle author Briggs gets to the emotional core of his characters by showing us how in tune they are with the landscapes actually surrounding them, rather than those we idealize.
— The Seattle Times.
It’s hard, reading these stories, not to think of Ken Kesey’s Sometimes A Great Notion, with its Stamper family driven by decades of wanderlust all the way west only to fester and rot on the Oregon coast once they’ve finally been forced to sit still. Brigg’s characters are rarely as bleak or irredeemable as Kesey’s Stampers, but there’s a similar sense of unfulfilled promise tinged with a lingering optimism that treats eventual success like something owed and assumed.
— Tawny Grammer
These are stories with ideas and genuine life. Briggs sticks his neck out on every page, and the reader is more than glad to stay with him. This is bold, new fiction from a real talent.
— The Statesmen Journal
As with his first two books, the stories in The Moss Gatherers are set in the Northwest, but this time the Northwest is full of secret meaning and Briggs’s descriptions of trees and rivers and rocks read like paeans to trees and rivers and rocks. In Briggs’s first two books, almost all of the scenery was bleak, which set him apart from nearly everyone else who’s written well about this region. But there’s beauty throughout The Moss Gatherers, of the phoned-in and television-ready variety: granite mountains, Douglas firs, rustling corn stalks, the Burke Museum coffee shop.
— The Stranger
Seattle-based certified genius Matt Briggs’ recent collection of short stories, The Moss Gatherers (StringTown Press), relates tales of families in the Pacific Northwest gone somehow wrong. It’s charming, beguiling, and slightly disturbing—not totally unlike the genius writer himself.
— Punk Planet