Frank Tavares, with his pleasant, matter-of-fact voice, told listeners of National Public Radio programs, “This is NPR,” for three decades. In his writing, a similar matter-of-fact voice comes through, in situations at times bleak and at others, darkly humorous.
Throughout Tavares’s collection of short stories, The Man Who Built Boxes, the reader will meet men and women who are grappling with their pasts. And sometimes, they learn the past will linger in unsettling ways.
“Despite his appropriate grieving at the funeral, Jimmy Mendoza had to admit he was glad the son of a bitch was dead,” begins “Why Jimmy Mendoza Hated the Late Tamale Jones.” Jimmy is a man seeking closure at Tamale’s closed-casket funeral, but even when he hears directly from the deceased, peace of mind is hard to find. The two men remain linked for decades to a crime, with one taunting the other as they appear to get away with it.
For Antonio Enzo Marino, three decades spent in Italy can’t completely wipe his past in Texas. He lives a quiet life in a village that is in the process of sliding downhill, literally. The reader meets Antonio when he awakens to find his garden storage shed has fallen over the edge of his yard. “He and his neighbors, few in number, clung to a fantasy that some miraculous force would shore up the perimeter of their village, would stop the inevitable. But he knew it wouldn’t happen. There was no miraculous force. There was no natural force. There was no man-made force. There was only the tick in time.” With a crumbling home in his future, Antonio makes a choice to return to the town—and the woman—he left behind as a young man.
Tavares, who studied at Wheaton College and Northern Illinois University, writes with clear details, opening the doors to the homes of people who may be coasting through their lives, treading water in unfulfilling jobs, marriages that have lost their romance, or family relationships that are stuck in unhealthy patterns.
Tavares’s characters are often rough around the edges, many who may feel boxed in by their life’s circumstances. There’s Sally, in “The Illustrated Sally,” a twenty-nine-year-old woman with giant chip on her shoulder and a body that serves as canvas to numerous tattoo artists. Each new tattoo stamps a reminder of someone who has wronged her, keeping the past from which she has fled ever present. John, in the title story, crafts wooden boxes of all shapes and sizes as a hobby—or obsession—as he grapples with rejection, loss, and a constant reminder of a sorrowful past over which he had no control.
Sometimes, those characters who have found satisfaction don’t really deserve it. Take the title character in “When Max Ryland Met the Devil.” Max is an arrogant, good-looking “alpha sales dog,” who finesses his way into bed with many of his female coworkers … until he meets someone who can take him down more than a few notches with devilish style.
There are a few stories where the characters actually lay the past to rest, even peacefully, and the reader sees a man who has moved forward, which offer a sweet balance to a rather salty cast that populates this book.
While not all the stories are equally satisfying, “Girl” in The Man Who Built Boxes is a meaty sampling of stories, filled with characters, some a little saltier than others.
August 2013, Bacon Press Books
$9.99, paperback, 226 pages
—Reviewed by Paige Fumo Fox