Hairway to Heaven: Tales of a Neighborhood’s Truths
Review by George Clack
Derek Alderman, a geographer at the University of Tennessee, has been keeping track of streets in the United States renamed after Martin Luther King Jr. He’s now counted more than 900. In her new short story collection from Cherry Castle Publishing, Hairway to Heaven, Patty Somlo has chosen to focus on the residents of one Martin Luther King Boulevard, an actual street in Portland, Oregon.
In Somlo’s telling, Portland’s MLK feels reminiscent of MLK Boulevard in Baltimore, a hard-scrabble, low-income neighborhood in the process of change. Somlo’s MLK was once a street of jazz clubs, now long gone, and the neighborhood is just beginning to gentrify a bit. There are panhandlers and hustlers, rehabbed alcoholics, churchgoers, men who hang out in the barber shop, hardworking Mexican-immigrant families, the remnants of an African-American middle class, and a few white folks moving in.
Hairway’s 15 short stories take a classic form, what is usually called a story cycle – that is, stories set in one place in which characters appear and reappear, sometimes as the protagonist and in other stories as a secondary character. In a good story cycle, each story should be able to stand alone, but added together, the stories will have a cumulative power that offers a vibrant portrait of a particular community at a particular time. Story cycles have been around a long time. In American literature courses, you’ll run across Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919) and William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses (1942). More recent examples that have won critical acclaim and popularity include Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place, Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge.
A few of Somlo’s stories are brief character sketches, but most work through a repeated motif – people are more than they seem to be at first glance. Or put a different way – everybody deserves to be listened to. Horn Man, the panhandler on the corner, was once a great jazz musician. The hardworking Mexican paterfamilias Elidio is susceptible to obsessive lust for his sexy cousin. Ali, the convenience store owner, is perhaps not the bad son his mother back in Egypt thinks he is. Through her use of the close third person point of view and the occasional first–person narrator, Somlo manages to get inside the heads of a vast variety of characters.
Among the more ambitious stories is “Angelina,” the name of the baby left in a bus shelter on MLK early one morning. Somlo shifts the point of view throughout the story, relating the action from the perspectives of a young white women walking her dog and a 63-year-old nurse on her way to work who together discover the baby. Somlo also flips sympathetically to the mind of the harried mother who couldn’t get the baby to stop wailing and then to the father who left the apartment because he couldn’t stand the crying and finally to a gay man living in artists’ housing in a neighborhood in which he’s fearful of going outside.
“Missing” is perhaps the most complexly layered story in the collection. It’s the tale of faithful Mavis Trent, a woman in her 80s still waiting for the return of her beloved husband from the Korean War. Howard Trent, that dashing husband, turns out not be quite the person she has held in memory all those years. What gives this story its oomph is the first–person narrator, a white woman journalist, new to the neighborhood, who becomes friends with Mavis and then fascinated with tracking down the truths behind her story.
As its protagonist, the title story features Leticia Williams, an ex-alcoholic. Leticia is one of the neighborhood rehab center’s success stories; she finds Jesus and the entrepreneur within herself in the course of the story, creating a combination hair salon and storefront church that she cleverly names Hairway to Heaven.
Somlo writes the straightforward prose that one might expect from an ex-journalist. Here’s a sample from “Hairway to Heaven,” Somlo describing the moment when Leticia begins to take control of her life.
“Now Leticia Williams would be the first to agree with Willie Washington that the devil had tempted her, even after she’d shaken hands with Jesus. But as time went on, the memory of that handshake kept assuring Leticia there might be another way to soothe the raw ache in her belly crying out for a drink and then another and another one after that, when some little thing didn’t go right and a world of sorrow threatened to come crashing down. After a couple of relapses and with that memory’s help, Leticia started to take charge.
Instead of running to the corner store and buying a bottle of booze the minute some man broke her heart, as nearly every man managed to do, Leticia sat herself down in the little apartment she’d gotten, thanks to the government, and lit some candles. Leticia had candles of all sizes and colors. mostly in glass, some that were scented. By the time she was done lighting candles and blowing out matches, the apartment smelled like carnations and long-stemmed roses.
That’s when Leticia sat down and quieted her mind. She started breathing in and out, as she’d been taught to do in some anger management class a long time ago. The breath coming in through her nose smelled so sweet and flowery, Leticia couldn’t help but imagine herself in a beautiful garden. With her mind’s eye, she watched the breath travel down into her lungs and enter her belly, where it swirled around, easing the old raw hurts before dropping to her legs. The breath eventually made its way down to her bare feet and toes, at which point she brought it up through her legs again.”
Somlo is a former journalist who lives in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco. This is her second published story collection, after The First to Disappear in 2016. She also has a memoir, When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace, in print.
Patty Somlo is the granddaughter of immigrants, She grew up in a military family that moved constantly. Her nomadic childhood has fueled her passion for writing about immigrants, refugees, the homeless and the dispossessed. Somlo spent ten years as a reporter, including at Pacific News Service, where her articles were picked up by major newspapers throughout the country, before concentrating on short fiction and creative nonfiction. Her journalistic focus on social issues reporting continues to inform her fiction.
George Clack is a writer, ex-magazine editor, and reviewer who lives in Columbia, MD. He teaches literature courses at Howard Community College and for the Johns Hopkins/Osher Program. Clack is also a member of IndivisibleHoCoMD’s Immigration Action Team; the editor of a weekly email newsletter, “Immigration News”; a board member of a Columbia-based literary magazine, the “Little Patuxent Review“; and blogs on creative writing under the name RasoirJ at 317am.org. Previously, he had a long career with the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Information Agency, and the National Endowment for the Arts as an editor of magazines, books, and Internet content.