It’s official. I will read ANYTHING that The Black writes. It’s the simple stories that test a writer’s mettle in my view; not the plot-heavy, drama-ridden yarns. This is a simple story, so beautifully written that as I took it in, it reminded me not only of why I like to read, but why I like to write.
‘The Rock’, set in the remote location of Shemya, Alaska, a place that folks joke “is not the end of the world, but you can see it from here.” The main character, Craig is a Sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, and far away from home. We don’t learn much about Craig at the outset, except that he is missing someone, and as the story unfolds, we learn who, and why. Her name is Colinda, “Collie” for short and she is a beautiful, spirited Master Sergeant (outranking Craig) with whom he’s had a brief romance. The fact that we are told very little about Craig’s background and a very limited amount about Collie’s as well is significant, not a failure of the author imagination: on Shemya, it doesn’t matter who you are “in the real world”, the isolation of the place, and the knowledge that “if bad shit happens while we’re on this island, we’re going to die” all contribute to make the inhabitants shed their mainland personas (and some, even their marriages) while they’re there and find whatever comfort and companionship they can in each other.
Craig and Collie’s romance, one born not only of mutual attraction, but out of mutual need, unfolds in the manner that much of this writer’s stories unfold—naturally, organically and in a way that is completely believable. Though ‘The Rock’ is a romance, the language of these two people’s coming together is not “romantic” unless you want to consider it romantic realism.
The first time they’re intimate, Craig reflects: “We were cool with each other, but it wasn’t about affection. It was more like we were friends who had needs and recognized the need in each other, so we were helping each other out and at the same time getting what we needed. It was kind of like the way Collie had stopped to pick me up on that morning two months earlier when I ran out of gas. That was a military thing—about helping out a fellow airman. This was a man-woman thing. I needed the kind of help that only a woman could provide. Collie needed the kind of help she could only receive from a man. We were helping each other out.”
But despite this almost pragmatic joining of two people, Craig’s longing for Collie after she’s gone is palpable and the rich descriptions of the stark landscape of the island only heighten that sense of longing both for Craig and the reader. Try though he might, he can’t forget her. Turns out, their connection transcended their stint at Shemya, but at the time, they both accepted that it should end, just because of the nature of the time and the place they were in: after all, Shemya is not “the real world”.
I won’t say any more about the plot except to mention that as always, The Black’s description of the delicate dance that happens between a man and woman as they come to care for each other is flawless. There is no flowery language, no overwrought description and yet, never a dull moment. There is humor and tenderness and realism and really, really good writing. And in Craig’s voice, we get a very masculine perspective of how love can happen, the decidedly unromantic way that many men form attachments.
When Collie leaves, and another woman makes her move on Craig, he doesn’t resist, even as he remembers the woman he would prefer to be with. But his thoughts tell us that he’s in this thing far deeper than he planned: “My copy of the video tape of Collie naked on the beach is in one of my suitcases, stowed in the compartment above my locker. I haven’t watched the video since Collie left. As beautiful as she looks in the video, smiling and twirling on the rocks with the ocean and sky as her backdrop, watching it makes me miss her too much. As I step to my bed to play with Mac, I’m hoping that the experience with her will help to erase my memory of my time with Collie. I don’t expect that it will.”
I loved the quiet simplicity of the language in this book, the fact that this author knows how not to have his words trip over each other or obscure the core of what he’s trying to convey. The writing here is much like Shemya itself: strong, stark, formidable.
Read this book. And then read everything else The Black wrote: he’s that good.