Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Book Review: Andrew Wingfield's Right of Way

Right of Way: Stories
Washington Writers' Publishing House
230 Pages
Published Oct. 15, 2010
ISBN: 0931846943
Reviewed by Jared C. Clark

What happens when a writer moves from Northern California to a changing neighborhood on the outskirts of Washington, D.C.? Well if that writer is Andrew Wingfield, he observes the people around him and writes about it. Wingfield's stories take place in an imagined D.C. suburb, and he maneuvers among the neighborhood's streets and people so deftly that the fictional town of Cleave Springs becomes as real as the neighborhood you or I live in.
The collection begins with "Precious," a story that highlights Wingfield's superb writing skills and attention to detail. In "Precious," Wingfield paints a broad portrait of declining urban life during the brief moment when a man chases a runaway dog, but during this time he also introduces the complicated notion of living in cities in the 21st century and the disparities between rich and poor that often arise. Wingfield writes, "America is a rich country growing poorer all the time in places," and this notion remains central to each of the stories he tells.
Wingfield's attention to detail helps bring Cleave Springs to life, but it's his delicate character development that really helps the places shine. Wingfield carefully constructs his characters in a way that provides multiple perspectives to life in Cleave Springs. The stories of a do-it-yourself white couple who move to town expecting a brighter future in the title story, or the black protagonist in "Goodbye" who reminisces about the days before drugs and crime left him as the only one of his childhood friends still living in the neighborhood, are the reason Cleave Springs feels so real—and so important.  
Wingfield creates these characters with the same subtle style he uses to craft each story. He never reveals too much too soon, and many of the characters are haunted by past events and people in ways that only re-reading can really uncover. While Wingfield does resolve each story, he does so in a way that leaves you thinking about the characters and the possibilities in terms of the neighborhood: their future is as uncertain, and their possibilities as endless as the place they inhabit. 

Despite the care Wingfield puts into creating Cleave Springs and the diverse residents who live there, at times this diversity does seem forced. In "Right of Way," the new-to-town couple move next door to Ash, a self-raised teenager and charge of a junkie and her drunk boyfriend, and also a nice lesbian couple raising a child on their own. But these instances are rare, and in the case of "Right of Way," the distraction is minimized when the story returns to the main character, Nita, and her struggle to identify with a new place, a strained marriage, and the neglected neighborhood kid with a secret to hide. 

Wingfield's collection helps shed light on a changing America and the limitations and possibilities these changes put on residents. At one point in the title story, Nita admonishes her husband, Wright, saying: "You care about your precious neighborhood and what it's going to be like one day when every house is beautiful and the right of way is a sanitized bike path and junkie women and their alcoholic boyfriends and their freaky kids don't live next door. That's what you care about. And it's creepy." Like Wright, Wingfield cares, but it's not creepy; it's elegant and compelling and tells universal stories about the rich and the poor, the old and the new, and above all, about people of every race and background trying to get by in a world that's changing around them.   
NOTE: Andrew Wingfield will read at The Writer's Center on October 17 at 2:00 p.m. Click here to learn more about the event. Look for Jared Clark's interview with Wingfield on First Person Plural tomorrow.

Jared Clark is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist and English master's student at George Mason University.


1 comment:

elisavietta said...

I know the book intimately and can vouch that it is an excellent collection that in sum, seems like a novel--

Good review.

Elisavietta Ritchie