Hard America: Sam Ligon’s “Drift and Swerve”

Sam ligon2 In Sam Ligon’s collection of short stories, “Drift and Swerve”, just out from Autumn House Press, the characters, for the most part, have first names only. Instead of last names, they have pasts that drive them, while their futures drift and swerve like the title of the collection as they pilot toward each bend in the American life.

With this collection, Ligon (pictured), one of the most popular writing teachers the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference has ever had, creates a new kind of current, a new exploration of the complexities of the American experience. One might make comparisons to such writers as Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, and the writers of the post-post-modern mid-nineteen-eighties. But that would be a mistake—these stories are even more feverish, with characters driven by wilder, more unspoken and unknown needs. 

Jess Walter says it well. The stories are propelled forward by Ligon’s “vigorous, perfect prose,” he writes. “Darkly funny and surprisingly moving, these tales of collision and escape feature unforgettable characters, like Nikki, who careens through the book’s hard America with a ferocious, incurable case of hope.”

In this collection of fourteen stories, something new is happening.  In these stories, through these characters, Ligon turns new light on the American experience and gives voice to the often invisible lives of the Wal-Mart poor.

“Drift and Swerve” is Sam Ligon’s second book, following on the heels of his 2003 novel “Safe in Heaven Dead,” Stories have appeared in such journals as the Alaska Quarterly Review, StoryQuarterly, Manoa, Gulf Coast, and many others.

Ligon teaches at Eastern Washington University’s Inland Northwest Center for Writers in Spokane, Washington, and is the editor for the literary journal Willow Springs. The title story of this collection was included as a recommended story in the 2008 O. Henry Prize Stories.

The men in these stories are millworkers, gas station clerks, cops. Or, to paraphrase a line from “Animal Drift and swerve Hater”: “maybe they are brokers or insurance salesmen.” These are men and women clinging to the stretch-marked underbelly of the American continent. They drink and listen to popular music, move from city to city, but always the same city. Search for connection in sex, in alcohol, in the speed of their vehicles.

“Animal Hater”, told in the second person, pinpoints this search for connection. “You crouch low, waiting, trying on faces of greeting, of comfort and reassurance, praying you’ll find the face of recognition.”

Indeed, the second story of the collection, the title story, “Drift and Swerve”, features, instead of names, characters who are denoted by their relationships: father, mother, brother, sister. An all-American family in a hard America. It’s through the dialogue of these characters with one another that they name one another—Boyd; Emily Sue—and in these stories it becomes names and physical contact that connect us as humans—tentative, fleeting connection, often through names that are cutting, and physical contact that is painful, but connection.

But Ligon, like Flannery O’Connor, is also able to locate moments of grace in the most difficult of moments. In “Drift and Swerve,” it’s a dance at the end of the story after having just watched a drunk driver flip his car like a playing card. They run over moss. “Barefooted, they ran and slid along the slippery concrete as if it were winter and the drainage ditch a frozen over river.”

In the Providence Journal, Sam Coale notes:

The first thing that hits you about Samuel Ligon’s style is its abrupt and curt delivery. It’s a brutal unmasking of any social pretensions whatsoever, a down-and-dirty language that describes sex and violence at its most primal and primitive level. His characters, imprisoned in marginal marriages and marginal lives, eat lots of doughnuts, smoke dope, get drunk, bicker and whine and reveal their self-destructive, self-doubt-ridden selves that always seem on the verge of total collapse.

There are revelations in this book. The contents are under pressure; smoldering, quiet, a cigarette butt on the sculpted lawn of Literature burning steadily. Characters whose reference for life is the music of Genesis, Journey, Patti Smith, Billie Holliday, their lives guided by lyrics and half-heard, half-understood phrases.

But these characters don’t go down without a fight. A man sits in a tree with cinder blocks and railroad ties, ready drop them on a car full of vandals who have been terrorizing his house. A woman barricades her dorm room so that she can have forbidden sex. A backyard barbecue turns into a series of escalating, damaging confessions.

In the collection’s final story, “Orlando,” we rejoin the recurring character of Nikki. Fleeing abuse, on her own, suddenly caring for a young child that isn’t hers, she finds, finally, some kind of a road that doesn’t swerve: on a bus “humming along south, taking her farther and farther away…Nikki safe at the back of the bus with a five year old, all those miles gone behind.”

Sam Ligon will be teaching two afternoon workshops at the 2009 Port Townsend Writers Conference. Registration is available here, as well as by calling Centrum at 360.385.3102, x114.

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