Review | Love in an Expanding Universe, by Ron Rindo
What part of America produces the very best fiction? Until around the late 19th century, for reasons mainly historical, American writers sprouted principally from the soil and salt of the East. Yet as the production of American fiction moved into the 20th century, the nation experienced a regional shift, not only towards the South, but also towards the territory historically known as the Middle West. Many of America’s finest pens have since emerged from the lands of the Middle and Upper Great Plains—the heart in the heart of the country. Consider that the Midwest claims more Nobel laureates than any other comparable region on earth and that it foregrounds authors we now refer to metonymically—Fitzgerald, Lewis, Anderson, Sinclair, and Hemingway. A relatively more recent survey would include, among many others, Morrison, Vonnegut, Bradbury, and Gass. In Love in an Expanding Universe, his third collection of short stories, Ron Rindo contributes to what has become a strong tradition of quality Midwestern fiction.
Those acquainted with his two previous collections—Suburban Metaphysics and Secrets Men Keep—will immediately spot a recurring theme that runs throughout much of Rindo’s work: love. Indeed, too many writers—and not enough poets—veer away from writing about love. It’s a tricky affair; love is elusive, at best. But for Rindo, as for Shakespeare before him (who is mentioned several times throughout the collection), paradox and hopelessness infuse love with a potent sense of ambiguity. Rindo’s characters detect impossibility everywhere, even on a US map where “you can’t drive all the way across without passing through a state that ends in a vowel.” Periodic measurements of astronomical proximity suggest our universe is expanding, yet David, the protagonist of the title story, feels paradoxically that his own universe is “shrinking,” for “as we grow older, more and more possibilities disappear.”
Rindo avoids sentimentality and other emotional pitfalls by fashioning narrators who, according to E.M. Forester, cannot be summed up in a single phrase, who reveal the beauty of life in a way that feels authentic and precise. Describing the action of crop dusting planes, the narrator of “Crop Dusting” observes that “[w]hen they get to the end of a field and reach the hedgerow, it looks as if someone above them pulls a string, and they turn straight up and disappear over the trees.” The image—or figure, in the Barthean sense—of the plane being pulled by a string is rendered in both poetic and exact terms, striking a delicate emotional balance. The narrator concludes that “[w]atching them almost makes you forget about every bad thing that’s ever happened to you.” This last comment nearly reaches the level of pathos, yet the same narrator remarks less than two pages later that “Wisconsin mosquitoes get so big they can stand flat-footed and hump a chicken.”
One of the many delectable aspects of this collection frequently arises in the form of eccentrics, who typically embody the inescapable paradoxes and voice the self-truths of the protagonists: an art professor who paints Italian frescos on the ceiling of his best friend’s house in the nude, a delusional grandfather who believes he is the governor of South Dakota, a teacher who observes no distinction between fly-fishing and life—these personalities combine to light the collection with a sense of the bizarre and also help to keep the pages turning.
Not quite as old as love, but maybe a close second, stands the idea of purgatory: the ambiguous, transient gray matter between two settled states. This concept figures large in “Middle Man,” the second story in the collection. As the title suggests, the narrator exists in limbo, suspended between an irretrievable past and an unacceptable future. Yet purgatory is also the very place where desire begins, prompting the narrator to consider that perhaps “love requires an unstable medium to root properly, sort of the way certain orchids can only germinate in the canopy of tropical trees, the spores delivered there by hurricanes.” Always able to articulate the problem, and often eloquently, Rindo’s characters struggle to locate easy solutions. David, the protagonist of the title story, postulates that “every romance begins on hallowed ground but inevitably flows down a common grade into a common sea. That all love, finally, spills into a calm, inconspicuous pool with a neutral pH and the salinity of the human body at rest.” Though solutions never arrive, beauty does, which prompts one to wonder, after reading the final line of “Like Water Becoming Air,” whether solutions, always transient, are at all relevant to the eternal beauty of problems: “I’m not thinking about getting arrested, or fined, or being late for work. All I’m thinking is this: That at least one time in his life, everyone should have someone look at him the way she’s looking at me.”
His two previous collections proved Rindo a capable storyteller. Love in an Expanding Universe, however, presents a more developed writer, equipped with a craft that is at once confident and flexible. His narrators and protagonists are nearly always male, and his stories tend to transpire in the Upper Midwest, and occasionally, in the deep South—a risky venture among Midwestern writers who all too often avoid treating strong regional settings and characters beyond their own backyards.
Those who appreciate the work of Charles Baxter, Michael Chabon, or even John Cheever will find excellent companionship in Love in an Expanding Universe. In these eight remarkable stories, one encounters characters who struggle as we do, facing the awful uncertainty of love in a universe perpetually shifting, flying outward, forever spinning away.