Tricia Bauer, Father Flashes
Publisher: Fiction Collective 2
2011, 96 pages, paperback, $13
in father flashes, Tricia Bauer depicts an unnamed family coping with the gradual loss of a father and husband to Alzheimer's. The victim is a former newspaper photographer, and his narrating daughter at one point identifies herself as a poet. More concerned with tragedy's emotional reality than with the facts of disease and circumstance, the narrator keeps the cast of characters confined mostly to her father and mother while using numerous fragments that have the quality of prose poems to capture the essence of child-parent relationships.
Father Flashes uses a prose style that places more importance on language and image than narrative tension. The book has little interest in plot, so it's the crisp, expressive sentences that keep you turning pages. In a paragraph that occupies more than half of one of the book's many individually titled fragments, Bauer writes,
If he'd been traveling south on a fast train—outracing
building after building of workers, the blinking between
TV channels, the ripening of corn and tobacco—and it
had broken through a fractured bridge railing, rushed
past its usual path and into fast water, and if, on seeing
the diesel-colored water press like night against the
windows, he'd panicked to find light until someone
pulled him through the cold oily water and delivered him
discolored and shaken to shore, he couldn't be more
stunned than now, standing in the doorway to his own house.
As this paragraph shows, Bauer channels an awesome amount of energy into her sentences, harnessing the increasing force of her metaphor in order to arrive at a stranger and truer understanding of a single pitiless moment. The reader doesn't learn much about the circumstances surrounding the father's illness, and yet instances such as the above-mentioned, emotionally intense and vividly written, leave you knowing far more than simply what was said and what was done.
Supported by a loose narrative, the characters in Father Flashes are defined as much by figurative language as dialogue and action. "Twice a week my mother stops by to pick up his dirty clothes," Bauer writes in a fragment titled "Distance."
Sometimes—in order not to interrupt a rare good mood
—she leaves without greeting him the clandestine way
young mothers replace tiny lost teeth with coins. Their
children sleeping off protection. And she drives home
having learned what she never knew with her own
children, what I've always known—when it's best to be distant.
"The clandestine way young mothers replace tiny lost teeth with coins" is an example of what Father Flashes does at its best. It's a precise, knowing metaphor that synchronizes with the book's focus on child-parent relationships. By contrast, the last line shows how a book with minimal dramatization is forced to give a quick summary of the change occurring within a character. At seventy-nine pages, the book's brevity is sometimes at odds with its narrative ambitions (not to be confused with its stylistic ones). Inevitably, this will bother some readers more than others.
From start to finish, Father Flashes is a book built around intensely imagined moments. Memories and insights appear briefly but linger long after white space has once more engulfed the page. Reflecting on her elusive father, the narrator says, "He never knew what it meant to me the day he held my child hands and said, 'These are hands that can remember things.' He guessed—a piano player, an artist. And he stared, amazed that they had come of him." Such scenes are quickly entered and exited, their context largely incomplete, but that's the point of course. Again and again, Bauer captures what's at the heart of these relationships while wasting no words.
Strangeness is often most telling in Father Flashes. In the book's fifth and final section, the narrator describes a series of dreams, at one point saying of her father:
I discover him not below but slightly above me. He's holding
to the under bridge with water fast around him, loud as an
audience. Swimming in after him, I fight the determined course,
muddy with its speed. When I reach him and open my exhausted
arms for him, he asks, 'Are you my bondsman?'
"Loud as an audience" is the kind of satisfying surprise that's typical of Bauer's writing in this book, as is the father's question, to which the narrator answers in the affirmative. "I have paid for his losses with words," she says. "That is what a poet does." Bauer never identifies her story as a memoir in order to lend authenticity, but her meditations are clearly personal in moments such as this.
For fans of flash fiction and prose poetry, Father Flashes offers an impressive exploration of a hybrid form. Its language is precise and startling, and its insights feel remarkably genuine and deeply human. That alone is an exciting achievement for any piece of writing, however conventional or experimental its mode of expression may be.