Recycled Glass: And Other Stories
Paperback: Glass Lyre Press, 2017
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Reviewed by Anna Kasik
Horlach Spencer, a greedy financial adviser, shows up three times throughout Fred McGavran’s short story collection, Recycled Glass and Other Stories. When we first meet this character, in “Larson Bennett and the Flight into Egypt,” he has set up a laptop outside the room of a dying man, Larson Bennett. Spencer is showing Bennett’s family how their inheritance will be affected depending on whether Bennett dies before or after the first of the year. The death tax expires on the first, so if Bennett lives until then, his family will save millions of dollars in taxes—and Spencer will earn thousands of dollars from his one percent management fee.
A few stories later, in “Death Without Taxes,” Bennett’s brother Baldwin is on his own death bed. This time, the family hopes death will come before the first of the year, when the federal estate tax will come back into effect. Once again, Spencer helps the Bennett family understand how much money they will save if their benefactor dies at the right time. And once again, Spencer has in mind his one percent management fee, which will leave him with millions.
In “The Reincarnation of Horlach Spencer,” Spencer gets his own story—though he dies just as the story begins, and instead inhabits the body of a buffalo driver in India named Pradna Singit. In Singit’s body, Spencer continues operating with the mind of a financial adviser, making deals and admittedly luring others into making bad financial investments. He bribes a moneylender into forgiving Singit’s debts—hundreds of thousands of rupees.
Spencer isn’t the only character to appear multiple times throughout McGavran’s collection. There’s the Bennett family and their lawyer, Harris Scintilton. There’s a priest, Charles Spears, and another lawyer, Mr. Torp. These recurring characters are all minor, and the stories in which they appear are separate and different. Yet these characters create threads and connections within the stories that serve to highlight the other, more significant, threads running throughout the collection.
Objects are important in McGavran’s stories, and these objects are often the subject of obsession. When a retired man finds that his watch has broken, he tries everything to get it fixed—but it is difficult because the watch is old, and it has an alarm, along with showing the date, time, and phases of the moon. When he dies, he thinks, he will have the pieces of the watch mixed in with his ashes. Another character, Joyce, is so set on having a recycled glass countertop that she and her husband are hardly phased by a horrific turn of events—in fact, they see it as an opportunity. A grandfather is so intent on passing down his collection of ancient manuscripts to future generations that he goes to great lengths to save them and winds up losing everything. His grandson, Walter, who is left with one of those manuscripts, nearly does the same. Instead he plans to have the manuscript, along with his own vice, a heliotrope stone, placed in his coffin with him when he dies. In another version of Walter’s story, a grandfather faced with the offer of Egyptian scarab beetles that promise eternal life gives up the life of his first-born son. Subsequent generations of Penningtons are similarly entranced by the lure of these golden scarabs.
These obsessions bring darkness into each character’s life and create traps for the characters’ families. Without a timepiece to regulate his day, the retired man begins missing appointments, and even as he becomes excited by experiences unbound by time, he becomes confused about his place in time. Joyce and her husband, in the end, find that what had seemed to be such a lucrative endeavor also has significant downsides. The Bennett family ignores humanity, overtaken with concerns of money and taxes. Walter becomes trapped in a legal battle over the ancient manuscript, haunted by his grandfather’s crimes. The Penningtons are caught in a cycle of life and death and secrecy.
McGavran’s stories are fantastic and imaginative and clever. They are woven with references to ancient history, heroic stories, and scientific principles. Some move into bizarre and magical territory. There is eternal life and reincarnation and a doctor who makes it big in a poorly designed limb and organ replacement practice—he leaves a man with two right arms and a woman with an upside-down finger. But even amongst the bizarre and magical, the stories are evenly paced and simply stated. A kitchen renovation gone horribly wrong reads as though there is nothing out of the ordinary. A man who becomes magnetic after trying out a new pillow never seems out of place. A precious stone makes a man invisible and helps him survive a war, and his story feels perfectly grounded in realism. These characters, despite their obsessions and darkness, seem perfectly average. These are lawyers, doctors, financial advisers, veterans, and collectors dealing with families, combatting anxiety, coming to terms with age, and greeting death.
And despite the bizarre circumstances, the dark obsessions, and the traps, there is redemption. Inevitably, the characters want off of the destructive paths their families have set. Larson Bennett’s great-niece is wary of becoming attached to her family’s money. Baldwin Bennett has a change of heart. And two grandsons decide that the family legacies will end with them—the histories will be burned, the crimes buried, the cycles ended.
McGavran’s are stories of obsession and experience. They are the stories of characters who are nearing death and who are thinking about what they will leave behind. They are deeply human, and entirely serious, with a touch of humor and a little bit of magic to light the way. Because even as each of McGavran’s characters struggle to leave behind a possession or an experience or a burden, they look forward to the freedom and the new life they are certain lies ahead. In the end, even Horlach Spencer has a chance for redemption. In the body of Pradna Singit, he realizes he is no longer interested in continuing as a crooked financial adviser. Instead, he chooses a more noble pursuit as he cares for Singit’s daughter and looks ahead to life as a humble buffalo driver.