On the road I have often passed little towns with fenced houses, some glossy and new, just as in magazine ads and some falling apart, as if they have seen decades of rain. I have often wondered about the lives of the people inside. On reading the opening story “The World Around Us” from John Cummings collection of short stories, I knew that I was going to find some answers and get a glimpse into small town America.
“Ugly to Start With” is a collection of interrelated stories that escapes being a novel simply because you can’t quite always connect the events, the people and the passing of time. The constants are our protagonist and narrator, a teenaged white boy, Jason and his home town of Harper Ferry.
I don’t usually read short stories and I am not a frequent reader of American fiction, however, I was pulled in from the first story. Cummings uses the opening story “The World Around Us’ to pin the location of Harper’s Ferry not only geographically but also to drive home the nature of the mundane existence of Jason’s boyhood. There is this really funny exchange of dialog in which Jason and his mother argue about the distance of Harper’s Ferry from Washington DC and whether that’s long enough to justify never visiting the capital. With “Two Tunes” we get a glimpse of Jason’s dysfunctional home which has its moments of redemption.
The rest of the stories we are introduced to some other characters in Harper’s Ferry that Jason or his family has had to deal with. As a reader your heart often reaches out to Jason’s pitiful existence, but Cumming’s keeps the narrative light and does not get into philosophizing.
“The Scratchboard Project” is another endearing story tackling adolescence love. I like how Cumming’s describes Jason’s reaction into stepping for the first time into an African-American household, and his confusion and mumbling respect. Everything is new and weird, but only when he gets to know his classmate Ty better, does he realize that how similar and more human they both are in spite of the color of their skin.
It may sound clichéd but my favorite story of the lot is “Ugly to Start with” which is the story of a cat which the family adopts. Skinny Minnie is beautiful and brings comfort to the family but soon she falls sick and gets into fights into with other cats. As her usefulness wanes off so does the interest of the family . There was something about this story that was too close to the shallowness of human nature, that makes us want to look into our inner selves. I remember that I wanted to cry when I finished reading it
The story that I least enjoyed was “We never liked them anyway”. It’s pivotal in the way that it exposes the relationship between Jason’s parents but it does refer to his precarious and non-existent circle of friends and the danger of gossips of small town. I just find that distasteful.
Cumming’s writing is fluid. The language is simple, effective and potent. Some of the chapters are really well written. I am not a one who usually judges a book by it’s cover, but there is something very displeasing about the cover art of “Ugly to Start With”. It’s as if it’s incomplete and if I were to see this in a store or even in an online book store I would skip it unless someone had told me that I must read it.