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SHJ Issue 4
Fall 2011

The Tiger’s Eye: New and Selected Stories
by Gladys Swan

Reviewed by Duff Brenna

Serving House Books (2011)

Cover of The Tiger's Eye By Gladys Swan

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With her tenth book, The Tiger’s Eye, writer, poet, visual artist Gladys Swan displays her mastery of the short-story form and confirms her place as one of the supreme storytellers of her generation. Swan’s range is deep and profoundly spacious. Her stories are peopled with characters who seem intensely alive. Here are the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly, the winners, the losers, the down and out, the pariahs, the insiders, the middle-aged, the very young, the very old. The multiple points of view throughout Swan’s collection are as variable as the craft of writing allows.

In “Losing Game,” a wanderer named Jason Hummer is searching for his father. When Jason stops to help a man who was beaten bloody by six other men, the police arrest Jason for being a vagrant. He’s thrown in jail and has a night “without peace.” Steel doors clashing, drunks yelling, drunks vomiting, foul smells permeating the air Jason breathes, turning his stomach. This is the world of the outcasts, those exiled from “normal” society. It’s a world Jason didn’t choose, a world determined by the act of his father abandoning him many years ago, leaving him to his fate. Determinism is the guiding philosophy behind all of Swan’s stories. They tell us that one move, false or otherwise, sets the course for the rest of our lives.

The day after his arrest, Jason is released. He resumes his search and ultimately finds his father at a carnival working as an operator of a pony ride for children. The old man’s identification is not with the humans he serves, but with the ponies for whom he expresses some affection. As he watches his father at work, Jason has an epiphany. His father has “forsaken humankind altogether and gone to the wilderness to live among mavericks…” Father and son are drifters carved by their own natures to go through life essentially alone. And Jason knows also “… that he would never go up to his father…and make himself known.”

Not making yourself known is a theme that permeates “The Wayward Path,” a meditation on senility and aging from the point of view of a misunderstood old lady (“a witch”) who searches through people’s trash and finds things that are valuable to no one but her. She takes her treasures home and clutters her house with them, the town’s discards. Which, of course, is appropriate, for she is a discard too. It has been many years since anyone has set foot on her floors. “Trouble was, time buckled up like an accordion and ten years got pleated into one.” Her memories overlap and she can’t remember what her life was really about. Her experiences were packed up “…all in one basket and took her where they take people out of your ever hearing of them again.” Swan gives us the sense that the junk filling the house keeps the old lady company. The mysterious ending of “The Wayward Path” brings Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” to mind, but in such a way that one sees the unreliable narrator either having a bad dream or hallucinating.

In “Flight,” Orlie, the rover with a guitar, tries to bum a meal from a farmer and finds himself surrounded by dead chickens that have had their necks wrung. The farmer steps out of the house pointing a rifle at Orlie as if he’s responsible for all the dead poultry. We learn that the farmer has lost his wife, we don’t know if she left him or she has died. Maybe he shot her? Whatever happened, the experience drove the man out of his mind and Orlie is in big trouble.

The title story, “The Tiger’s Eye,” introduces us to a lonely man named Lawrence. He’s been divorced by three wives over the course of several years. Eventually he loses his job and retires. He needs to find a reason to get up in the morning and go outside. He visits the zoo and befriends a caged tiger and finds that, in many ways, he and the tiger have led parallel lives.

Every main character in Swan’s collection is hiding behind a façade, reaching out, but never truly connecting with anyone else in his or her life. Over the many years that the Swan oeuvre has accumulated, this hidden and unshared separation anxiety has shown itself to be her signature preoccupation. The ultimate point being that, in one way or another, we all live as if we’re the Other. We connect physically, but that’s as deep as it goes. The blood/brain barrier is never crossed except in our illusions—those illusions that allow us to ride the surface of life and avoid seeing into the precarious, soul-shredding depths of unbearable reality.

The story “Lucinda” shows this theme unmistakably. The mother of little Lucinda is Pilar, an illegal alien who barely speaks English. She is taken in by a man named Alex when she is only fourteen. He gets her pregnant and she gives birth to Lucinda whom she adores. As the name implies, Lucinda is the light of her life. She thinks she finally has someone that belongs totally to her. Nothing else matters but their relationship, not Alex (who comes and goes), not Pilar’s friend Sally—nothing or no one comes between Pilar and her daughter. Except the daughter herself who has her own child-world that, try as she might, Pilar can never truly penetrate. She can share that world, but never be inside it. Swan punctuates her meaning with a delicate image of Lucinda with a coloring book. She and her mother are choosing crayons to color the figures in, giving mother and daughter not only something to do to pass the time, but also the means to create a pretend life in two dimensions.

The same separation is seen in one of the most absorbing stories in the book: “Getting an Education.” Crystal (note the name) looks out upon a world ever-changing and never explaining itself. She goes through school getting high grades in order to get into college. In college she gets mostly A’s. But being near the top of her class is actually rather boring for Crystal. Everything seems so artificial to her, the classes, the acquisition of knowledge, the ambition to get somewhere, be somebody. All of her neighbors are living rather careless, crazy lives, which make no sense to the girl. Some are old and feeble, some are drunks, some are on the edge of killing each other. Her favorite professor turns out to be a spinner of illusions and a homosexual who comes out of the closet when his ailing mother finally dies.

It occurs to Crystal “…that she’d been taking in such details all her life, fact and fancy, bits of craziness and wonder, things large and small, crooked and straight, superficial and devious, excessive and lacking—unable to discard any of it.” And then a flash of illumination hits her: “It was like so many fragments of glass that the light shone through, first one way, then another. And each time you took out the collection to add another piece, you found that the light had shifted and nothing was the same.” The use of metaphor doesn’t get any better than Crystal’s shifting light telling us that the unqualified truth about anything associated with human behavior is (and always will be) beyond our grasp. The Tiger’s Eye abounds with equally insightful images showing us our ineffable selves, our enigmatic species. In Swan’s view, each one of us is large—everyone contains multitudes.


SHJ Issue 4
Fall 2011

Duff Brenna

is the author of six novels, and recipient of an AWP Award for Best Novel (The Book of Mamie), a National Endowment for the Arts Award, a South Florida Sun-Sentinel Award for Favorite Book of the year (The Altar of the Body), a Milwaukee Magazine Best Short Story of the Year Award, and a Pushcart Honorable Mention.

Brenna’s stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Cream City Review, SQ, Agni, The Nebraska Review, The Literary Review, The Madison Review, New Letters, and numerous other literary venues. His work has been translated into six languages.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury