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Compressionism: The Pittsburgh Stories

(iUniverse, $10.95, 115 pp)

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The first story in Guy Hogan's first collection of short fiction opens with a simile, but don't get used to it. Writing in a style he calls "compressionism," Hogan broadly eschews such linguistic adornments. The Pittsburgh-based author's stripped-down language and close-to-the-bone themes harken, most obviously, to Hemingway, and the result is an uneven but often compelling debut.

 

 

Two things are immediately apparent about Hogan's work. One is his style, whose articulation he perceives as so essential to his project that he's named his book after it. The second is the looming presence of Vietnam, which is either backdrop or backstory for many of these 32 pieces (all of them thumbnail-short except for "In the Garden of Love," a 35-page novella).

 

The virtues of both attributes are apparent in that first story, "Genesis," which begins: "It sounded like a fast ball pitched against the port hull of the big chopper. Scott Delaney felt his stomach flutter and the pulse beat faster in his throat. The door gunners were searching the jungle below." The details are immediate, cinematic, and cleave us to Hogan's frequent protagonist, Delaney, whom we can also imagine as the unnamed young hero of "The Wind in the Leaves of the Trees," an affecting (and very Hemingwayesque) thousand-word portrait of a returned Vet adrift and living at the Downtown Y.

 

Indeed, virtually all of Hogan's non-Vietnam stories take place in Pittsburgh, where the default setting is Oakland's university community from the late 1960s through 1980s, and where the themes are love, sex, rock music, unemployment and beer. Hogan's heroes -- some just home from Vietnam, some much older -- take some classes, hook up with and detach from women, work dead-end jobs and lose them. The tone is typically harsh -- angry, sweaty, self-recriminating -- with interludes of grace and hope.

 

 Like Hemingway's "The Big Two-Hearted River," another piece about a vet, some of these stories are composed of short declarative sentences that demand you read between their lines. Others (also a la Hemingway) have long stretches of almost pure dialogue; another of Hogan's acknowledged influences is Raymond Carver. A few of the briefest pieces feel more like vignettes than stories.

 

But while we are by design given little access to the characters' thoughts except through what they say, the stories in Compressionism feel very personal, even confessional. Hogan's bio, after all, notes that he is a Vietnam vet, and the Hill District native fills his fiction with offhand references to landmarks whose import could scarcely be apparent to anyone but a Pittsburgher.

 

When Hogan's stuff works, it works well, as in "Denial," a hard-edged and mournful story about a man and his wayward alcoholic brother that in quick strokes paints a vivid portrait of their mutual failings. At his best, he conveys pages of information in a few sentences, as in "The Ex-Boyfriend": "She unzipped the shoulder purse, took out matches and a pack of cigarettes. There were only two cigarettes in the pack. She lit one cigarette but did not offer the boy the last cigarette, and he did not ask for one."

 

Too often, though, Hogan's commitment to his style itself intrudes, and not just because all his characters (Al, Matt, Karen, Larry) have names plain as soda crackers. His dialogue crosses and recrosses the fine line between brutally incisive and merely mundane; the sketchy "Uptown," for instance, reads like a condensed pulp novel ("'She's not the one who comes in here smelling of cheap wine every night.'").

 

At times, moreover, you long for a vibrant simile: A sexy young woman "has a wonderful laugh." Yes, but what does it sound like? And Hogan's paring of details to an intended essential few works only if the details provided are the right ones. In "Pittsburgh Confidential," a woman in an affair has a husband who's "hopelessly alcoholic"; her lover's brother lives "in one of the best neighborhoods in the city." Hogan's prose is so relentlessly visual that these abstractions jar us while simultaneously failing to illuminate; a good detail about the brother's street would convey the idea so much better.

 

On the other hand, Hogan does seem most comfortable with the extra-short form: The collection's low point is the novella "In the Garden of Love." A moody, sprawling story about a middle-aged man who leaves his family to live like a student near Pitt, it's self-indulgent and badly in need of pruning.

 

Hogan studies fiction-writing at the University of Pittsburgh, and his stories are regularly published in The Front newspaper. Compressionism appears to be his own invention -- a style, he explains in a post-script, devoid of exposition and relying, like a silent film, solely on imagery. "Clarity must be our artistic truth," he writes. Images poorly chosen (or not chosen) or poorly rendered, of course, do clarity no favors no matter how lean the prose; and indeed, one person's clarity is another's subjectivity. But Hogan hits paydirt enough that you hope he keeps digging.

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