By Amy Dupcak


Lucid River Press
August 2016

Reviewed by Christopher X. Shade


James Hurst's 1960 short story, "The Scarlet Ibis," is commonly required reading for high school kids (and was adapted into an opera last year in New York City). It's a remarkable story that opens with a garden: "The flower garden was strained with rotting magnolia petals and ironweeds grew rank amid the purple phlox." Right away we are drawn into a world we are not familiar with, and what a wondrous world it is. The Southern farm manner of the narrator's language, the imagery he evokes, the flower garden—all of it charms us as we continue to read about a very weak, sickly child, nearly dead at birth, who gets dubbed "Doodle," and about his small family's encounter with a dead bird, which is the scarlet ibis. By the end, we are teary-eyed over a tragic turn and a moving parallel between Doodle and the ibis.

Hurst's story came to mind immediately upon reading the opening story of Amy Dupcak's debut story collection, Dust. Hurst's readers today are of an age Dupcak is implicitly concerned with. Her collection of fourteen stories opens with a garden, too, and her opening story, "The Garden," has some of the Hurst story's wonder, much to Dupcak's credit. Two runaways spend the night in an abandoned barn. Their world is unfamiliar to us, the narrative persona of the young woman is mannered, and the story's full of intriguing symbols. The spirit of a runaway is something that feels in parallel with Hurst as well, in the sense that a runaway is running toward what is different, what is fresh—more precisely, what is next. It is about pitching oneself headlong with urgency at the next experience. For the young man in Hurst's story, it's the feeling he gets at the Old Woman Swamp. For the young woman in Dupcak's story, it's in an abandoned barn. (And instead of pitching oneself headlong, her narrator describes it as being pushed "heart-first into a future that did not allow a lifeboat.") But ultimately, a different story is taking place in Dupcak's "The Garden." The young woman's past preoccupies her, propels her: "He was the one who had freed me from the dirt and dust of my past." 

Which brings us, right away, to talking about dust. Another reason Hurst's story came to mind as I was reading was Hurst's imagery of dust: ". . . and now if an oriole sings in the elm, its song seems to die up in the leaves, a silvery dust." In both Dupcak and Hurst, dust is connected to memory, the ache that comes with remembering an unfortunate past, and it is a yearning to change direction, because to change what has transpired is not possible.

Dupcak teaches writing to kids and teens, in workshop format, and this access she has to the pangs, turbulence, and drama of adolescence has undeniably fed her talent for creating stories. These stories of youth are richly textured. The protagonists vary in gender, age and circumstance, and are believable, sometimes agonizingly so, because many of these adolescent themes are universal; we remember tender spots of our younger selves.

In the story "In Limbo," a very young girl—a reserved grade-school child, in a Catholic all-girls school, who is teased by other girls and does not yet know what the word "slut" means—is kidnapped by an artist who performs his "art" on her in some very tense scenes. The pacing is perfect, unhurried. The scenes are tense because we fear for this girl's safety, and for her innocence. The story line of this kidnapping is captivating, but what this story powerfully draws out is her home life, her alienation: she is hardly seen by her mother and father, and everyone in her world. She hardly exists.

On the spectrum of adolescent concerns, alienation is one of the brightest flares Dupcak sends up in this collection. In "Ten Days," a young man agrees to watch someone's apartment while she's away, and in the isolation preoccupies himself with imitation relationships with the strange apartment's objects. In the closing story, "Buzz," a young woman named Nina in Bushwick, Brooklyn, hangs out with a music-and-drugs crowd on New Year's Eve, all of whom largely fail to acknowledge her grief. She is at moments overwhelmed by this grief over the loss of Cal, now a year after his death. Though Dupcak occasionally moves the perspective from one character to another, this is Nina's story. And one thing her dust is, in this story, is drugs. She observes another young woman: "She lingered above the white line, inhaling in little spurts: pinching her nose, tossing her head, sniffing, running her fingertip through the ghost of the drug, and wiping it against her teeth." This "ghost" of the dust prompts the narrator's grief again; she remembers sex with Cal, the first time. The dust, the drugs, are overlaid with her grief. Finally, it is a story about Nina coming to terms with the recent years of her wayward youth, the need to grasp that it's time to move on. It's as if dust has collected on her, she has remained suspended in this social scene for too long.

Hurst's story closes with the narrator sheltering his "fallen scarlet ibis from the heresy of rain." Dupcak's stories, too, shelter that which has come to be precious to all of us: the ragged edges around innocence of youth, and what it takes to grow up.