The Portable Son

By Barrett Hathcock

Aqueous Books
November 2011

Reviewed by John Shortino


The interconnected stories in Barrett Hathcock's The Portable Son echo, in content at least, the typical bildungsroman, following a single character, Peter Traxler, as he moves through high school and into the listless existence of his first decade after college. By presenting the pieces out of chronological order, however, Hathcock manages to transcend the genre, finding resonances and thematic connections in incidents set decades apart. As Peter deals with disappointment, failure and the death of his father, the material never seems familiar or cliche, and the South that Hathcock creates through his characters is not a vision of poverty or fundamentalism, but instead a region where old values clash with new fortunes.

In the opening story, "High Cotton," Peter is introduced as a high school junior in Jackson, Mississippi, diving into bins of picked cotton and attempting to navigate his best friend's bourgeoning sexual relationship. In this story, and in the ones that follow, Hathcock has a gift for invoking the physical details of Peter's world: as they dive, "wisps of cotton flutter from their hair and float behind them like bits of sea foam." In the title story, Peter encounters a former lover on a date and describes "a dessert plate smeared with icing and their two deflated cappuccinos, the inner rings of the mug showing the high tide of the foam."

In many of the stories, Peter struggles with his impulse to overstep his boundaries with women, and his repeated romantic failures each explore the way in which he never seems to correct this tendency. The title story finds Peter making an ill-conceived pass at a superior at work, and the next story, "Popular Baggage," explores how, in high school, he set himself up for similar disappointment. This story, the first in the collection narrated in first person, includes a parenthetical aside, Peter simply stating, "I can admit now that I was embarrassing both of us." It's a bitterly funny moment, given the context of Peter's adult failures: even though he is able to identify and confess his over-reaching, he is never able to learn from his mistakes.

The death of Peter's father features prominently in a number of stories, with one piece, "Pater Noster," occurring in the hours following the funeral. Peter, returning his uncle to his motel, washes the older man's feet; when he returns home, he finds his mother asleep with the family bible and his father's obituary. These invocations of religious rituals don't seem out of place or overwrought; instead, they touch on the idea that the grieving might find comfort in tradition.  Peter tries to resume his job and his routine, but something has fundamentally shifted:

Peter had rehearsed his next trip home and in his mind it had gone quite differently. His father was still alive, and Peter had kept his promise to himself and now flown home again until he could pay for it all himself. Never again the "you've got to make your own way" talk he and undergone over Christmas.

The last three stories in The Portable Son are the strongest pieces of the book. Each features Peter facing significant events in his late 20s: a friend's upcoming wedding, a ten-year high school reunion, the death of a high-school friend. In "Every Good Boy Does Fine," Peter receives a wedding invitation and declares: "My friends have entered the season of matrimony. I'm 27 now and the bells of their testicles have been ringing church hymns for a good three years now." While his friends get married or have children, Peter finds himself stuck between adolescence and adulthood, still in school and nostalgic for better times:

Each time I'm back home we all sit around at the reception, sweaty and drunk, our tux shirts pasted to our backs, and we say, We never see each other except at these things. And then we sigh, take a drink, and crane our necks to see who's got the cigarettes. And then we go back to our various corners of the map to our jobs (or in my case, to my "education") and don't talk to each other again until one of these emissaries beckons us back home.

Peter's separation from his old friends goes beyond their diverging career paths and geographical distance, though: in the penultimate story, when one asks how long he is going to hold onto his father's death, the rest of the stories suddenly come into focus. The effect is heartbreaking. Hathcock's exploration of how the loss of a parent can derail a life—particularly when that life is already in a transitional stage—is resonant and impressive. Throughout the book, Peter's mother and extended family assure him that his father would have been proud of him, and it's easy to understand why this makes him feel so lost: under that kind of pressure, who wouldn't want to indulge their sense of nostalgia, to idealize a time when each mistake didn't carry so much weight? The stories Hathcock shapes around this question give The Portable Son a deceptive gravity.