The characters in Tom Benz’s short story collection “Home and Castle” are on edge. Recently unemployed, or divorced, or restless in a present relatonship, or desperate to be accepted by the in group, they take cringe-inducing actions against the petty demoralizations of suburban life.
In “The Protectors,” Logan “might have let it go,” when a parent from his daughter’s school hangs up on him. “Naturally, he was as annoyed as if he’d been slapped by a stranger merely for asking directions. … [b]ut he had always hated misunderstandings, the bane of the human condition …”
Jarrett in “The Waiting Moon” wonders whether he should tell his wife about his serendipitous discovery of a bookstore when he misses his usual train stop, but the bookstore “isn’t the kind of place he could bring her … What he finds peaceful, she judges to be blank, a sensory deprivation chamber. He is still in love with her, but after twenty years, it is a static love, and there is no such love on earth that can compete with an unknown one, the blaze that never goes out.”
Drew’s stubbornness and pride thwart his wife Zoe’s chance for a dream job in “Home and Castle.” He ignores the words of his job coach “not to let fools get under his skin. But it was happening anyway … His dignity was once again under assault and though he attempted to remember the importance of Zoe’s mission, he had reached his limit.”
The consequences are painful and soul-piercing but ultimately not catastrophic.
When Zoe asks Drew what he had done to have them both removed from the Home and Castle headquarters where she was being interviewed, “Drew wouldn’t have been able to say whether the notes in her question were born of annoyance, sorrow, shock, or disbelief, but there seemed to be remnant of each. … Drew met her puzzled stare, tried to silently soften the impact, convey that they would be all right … all the way to the end. … Zoe sagged a little and began to say something but she knew there were not words for these collisions of the heart …”
They are not mean or vengeful, these determined but momentarily challenged characters. Mr. Benz does not let them – or the reader – off that easily. They are trying to cope with “the toxic anxieties of contemporary America” (from Jacob Appel’s appraisal on the back cover.)
Neal’s news, in “Early Retirement,” is met with shock, then a “shallow congratulation,” soon replaced with hostility, as friends and family feel his supposed superiority and wonder what he had done to become so comfortable at an early age. Feeling “more and more like a loose cannon, failing to engage in any meaningful activity beyond simple chores,” Neal finds himself a failure at retirement. His financial comfort leads him to such social discomfort that he takes a menial job at a local grocery store. He is surprised at the friendliness with which his family and former friends treat him now that they believe he has had his come-uppance, “not for a second betraying their ridicule or pity.”
Mr. Benz, who lives in Evanston, has published stories in several magazines. He won the Solstice Short Story Contest in 2011 and was a finalist in the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Contest in 2013 and 2015. He says, “I enjoy the stuff of ordinary life, which, through a sequence of escalating difficulties, suddenly becomes remarkable and strange. I like depictions of the world that attempt to balance minor tragedies with irony and an occasional touch of humor.”
“Home and Castle” was published by Snake Nation Press, an independent literary press in Georgia, which publishes the annual Snake Nation Review, a book of poetry by a single author and a book of fiction by a single author.