“When in doubt,” I tell him, “always drive on. Just remember that one thing, all right? All right?”
Driving the Heart, Jason Brown
The thirteen stories in Jason Brown’s Driving the Heart are about driving on, regardless of obstacles and, to a great extent, without a focus on the ultimate destination. These are largely grim tales, full of brain tumors, car wrecks, and lives wasted by booze and drugs, but they are not hopeless tales; they are peopled with characters who drive on, even while others around them are coming to a stop.
The two showcase pieces–the title story and “The Coroner’s Report”–are about imparting the lesson of driving on. Both are narrated by men whose jobs leave little room for sentiment: one drives human organs to hospitals, the other is a coroner in Portland, Maine. And both narrators have great wells of sentiment, regret, and nostalgia beneath their clinical, hard-shelled demeanors. They connect the painful, matter-of-fact events of their jobs to tragedies in their pasts, and use these shifting connections to weave tenuous webs of meaning. Though they are ostensibly passing knowledge to junior colleagues, they are busy making internal sense of their own lies.
Like Brown’s latest collection, Why the Devil Chose New England for His Work, “Driving the Heart” is set mostly in Maine. But unlike his later stories, revolving around a rural Kennebec River town, these have an urban setting, largely in and around Portland. As such, the stories have a grittier feel, and touch on the problems of cities: homelessness, murder, and public drunkenness turn up frequently. The Eastern Prom, Fore Street, and the Cumberland County Detox are as much characters in these stories as the people. Brown’s Portland is a demimonde of dead-end lies, untouched by the tourist board’s romantic patina. The picturesque wharf district smells of dead fish and diesel fuel, with desperate but intent struggles in the shadows of the lovely pine trees.