Swim for the Little One First

By Noy Holland


September 2012

Reviewed by Michael Jauchen


One can enter Noy Holland's Swim for the Little One First at any point and find astonishing sentences. Consider, for example, this short passage of description from the story "Merengue":

Now mornings after the water swept through, old men appeared in knee socks swinging their metal detectors. They worked by phalanx, like the organized blind, transistors in their shirt-front pockets. Some could walk still. Others slumped in their chairs. They found little and hoarded it fiercely.

It's an object lesson in sentence construction: the repeated long "i" in the second sentence; the way the spondees of "Some could walk still" literally trudge forward; how the alliterative "found" and "fiercely" bookend the final sentence; the suggestive shadow cast between "phalanx" and the old men's phallic metal detectors. Even divorced from their larger context—a surreal story of a young woman and her boyfriend struggling to get pregnant at a decrepit and crime-ridden oceanside retirement community—sentences this deeply considered have their own discrete appeal. You want to stop and stare at them. It's almost like they're moving. 

Noy Holland once studied with Gordon Lish, so it should come as no surprise that the sentence is where the core heat of her narratives resides. This heat extends far beyond a close attention to sentence-level clarity and aims more deeply at something almost mystical in the sentence-making process. As Gary Lutz (another Lish acolyte) formulates it in "The Sentence is a Lonely Place," what Holland is pursuing is "an intimacy between the words, a togetherness that has nothing to do with grammar or syntax but instead has to do with the very shapes and sounds, the forms and contours, of the gathered words."

This linguistic intimacy assumes different forms in Swim for the Little One First: trademark Lish repetitions ("Funny, what you keep, what keeps at you."); defamiliarizing truncations ("I said I'd come. I flew across."); and deft uses of sound ("Charlie Finch was no bigger than a clothespin."). Sentences like these move forward with their own signature velocity. They feel chiseled. And even in those moments when they may only hint at the edges of conventional sense, we remain anchored and pleased by the music embedded within them.

In lesser hands, an atomic fixation on the sentence could lead to fiction marked by a forest-for-the-trees myopia, a fetishizing of language to such a degree that other, more conventional, narrative markers—character, plot, emotional depth—get relegated to the margins. In other words, the sentence level becomes the only level there is. But one of the specific strengths of this collection (and Holland's work in general) is the way her meticulous attention to language never overshadows the way her stories also work as profound, emotionally-fraught character studies. Instead, the brilliance of Holland's prose actually sharpens her ability to explore those territories of fiction—family loyalty, loss, love—that might be considered well-worn or, dare I say, conventional.

This isn't to say the stories here are easy, or that they reveal themselves completely on a first reading. Spatially, Holland's stories move all over the place. They travel so quickly through the American West, Ecuador, Pennsylvania, and the Pacific Coast, that, by the end, the disparate settings seem to congeal into a singular liminal geography. Similarly, characters and their motivations are often drawn with an acute spareness. In "Pachysandra," we know the narrator travels a great distance to care for Rose, an old woman who's fallen, but we don't know why. And is Rose the narrator's aunt? A family friend? A godmother? Questions like these proliferate throughout these stories, and Holland's answers to them always remain indirect and partial. The final result is a collection heavy in atmosphere, fiction that fosters a surreal sense of readerly disorientation.

The stories of Swim for the Little One First show Holland's deeply interested in the way words—both the things we say to each other and the way we narrate our experiences to ourselves—literally create the world for us. Again and again in these stories, Holland's characters look to language as a way to anchor themselves in space and time. Words are the tools they use to articulate and name their deepest pain and longing, to make the unspeakable manifest in the hopes of containing and mastering it. In "Today Is an Early Out," Charlie Finch's architect father fortresses his mountainside home against the elements using everything he can muster: "The stem walls are three feet thick and beefed up with miles of rebar. He's got her anchored into the bedrock with eyebolts, with braided cable as big around as a boy's arm." Language is this house for Holland's characters. It's handmade and labored, the armor to combat the aggressive reality existing outside: "Let it come, Father Finch thinks: Try me."

Aggressive reality, however, always has something unpredictable (literally: unable to be said beforehand) up its sleeve. And embedded within the security afforded by language is the knowledge that it will always remain provisional and insufficient. Father Finch's house is eventually subsumed in a mudslide, just one example of the way Holland's characters find themselves unmoored in the world. The mother in "Luckies Like Us," a medical doctor, stands dressed in her scrubs by the hospital bedside of her infant son, and there's no help she can offer. Mary, the young woman at the center of "Merengue," loses her child to a miscarriage and is then gang raped on the beach, with the rapists "cramm[ing] sand in her mouth to keep her quiet." Catastrophe finds people in this collection. Their grasp on the world around them is always contingent and slight, and they know that any attempts they make to name a fluid reality can only leave temporary marks. "Nobody gets off," notes the narrator of "Two Dot." "This wasn't news to me. Not so easy. I had it coming."

Holland's spare composition and blurring of narrative edges also affords her the chance to explore the terrain between these different pieces. While these stories aren't linked by setting, action, or overlapping characters, they attain a coherence through Holland's use of recurrent imagery, through the subtle way she makes them echo with one another. "Pachysandra" concludes with the phrase "blood country," words that show up as the title of a later piece. In "Blood Country," a horse kick turns a man amnesiac; then, seventy pages later, in "The Last Doll Never Opens," a mule kick cures another man's blindness. Blind boys appear in "Jericho" and "Love's Thousand Bees." Bees show up in the title story and, to come full circle again, in "Pachysandra." Follow these types of associations far enough, and the care that's viscerally evident at the sentence level soon expands outward into a collection whose images have the unity and design of an organic chemical compound.

I've now read Swim for the Little One First three times: first for the music, then for the sense in individual stories, and then in search of the echoes between them. It's a collection that gives itself away in pieces, its dream logic working through suggestion and partial revelation. But the feeling it ultimately creates is seductive—I'm sure readings four, five, and six will come with their own discoveries—where Holland somehow unroots you from the world, but still makes you feel like you're deep down in it.