St. James Infirmiry – a Review by William Taylor Jr.
St. James Infirmary, a new collection of stories by Steven Meloan, is an engaging and pleasantly unpredictable read. The opening piece, “Googies,” does a solid job of setting up themes that are revisited throughout the book. What begins as a nostalgic first-person narrative of a family’s cross country road trip out west ends on a sour and slightly sinister note, with the destination of Los Angeles offering the disillusionment that comes with experience in the way only a big city can.
“Hold Me Tighter” follows, in which a chance encounter in a Redondo Beach Dive bar begins with the hope of romance but the Hollywood ending proves elusive. “The Swan” is the first story in the collection that caught me a bit off guard, moving from the seemingly autobiographical fiction of the first two pieces to a story from a woman’s point of view that begins as a tale of two lonely people getting to know each other in the distant world that existed before the internet, before drifting into something like magical realism.
The pieces are of varying length, and most are concise snapshots of a lost America, generally spanning the 1960s-80s. The stories are filled with quirky, well realized characters, and unadorned writing with a solid sense of place. The varying subject matter and length keeps things lively and the fast moving prose always left me ready for more when I reached the end of any given piece. A good number of the stories are set in California’s Bay Area and the city of Los Angeles, and occasionally fittingly dabble in noir, such as in “The Apartment,” a creepy tale set in 1980s San Francisco.
The title story presents an evening with a dysfunctional family that I imagine will ring true with many readers of a certain age, as it did with me. The narrator’s household hosts a business faculty party, and family members, younger and older alike, end up in various stages of inebriation and secrets and resentments that most any family holds rise to the surface as the evening unfolds.
Much like the America of the late 1960s that they bring to life, many of the stories here are breezy on the surface but eventually reveal a darker underpinning. “The Ranch” in particular, one of the more memorable pieces in the collection, begins as a teen-age horse riding trip before taking a number of dark turns to an unexpected and sobering ending, capturing the essence of a tumultuous and paradoxical time in American history.
“The Dancer” is told from the point of view of a young addict doing what she does to get her daily fix. It’s a hard and honest look, but not unsympathetic. “Naked Popcorn” is a humorous story of life in a house with hippie film students in the late 1960s. Meloan is adept at bringing these times and people from years gone to a vivid life and he creates engaging characters and situations with relatively few words.
The final piece finds the narrator and his brother busking about Paris and Berlin in the early 1980s. They immerse themselves in the punk/new wave scene in the local dive bars, make brief connections at the Berlin Wall, and there’s another romantic encounter that never has the chance to bloom.