What We Build Upon the Ruins is Giano Cromley’s second book and first collection of short stories. The eleven stories here deal with themes like with growing up, coping with loss, uncertainty, and the destruction of families.
Take, for example, the titular story, which also kicks off the book. “What We Build Upon the Ruins” is about a family of four with two sons who spend several weekends in a Native American canoe building class as, what the father calls, “a bonding experience.” This story is continued in another one, “Human Remains,” in the middle of the book and concluded at the end with “The Physics of Floating.” Through the stories, we learn that the family is still struggling with the accidental drowning of their only daughter.
One of the things that struck me the most about this trilogy of stories is how real the kids feel. They’re old enough to understand the concept of death, yet not old enough to know exactly how to cope with it. Of course, the adults have no idea how to cope either. We see the sometimes erratic and confused ways the parents act, trying to process the loss of their daughter.
“When I was younger, I assumed adults did things on purpose, their actions governed by logic and strategy. I knew a lot less about the world then.”
Yet, for all their family problems, I still wanted to see them successfully build that canoe.
Cromley’s knack for writing believable and likable children is also present in “Boy in a Bubble.” A young boy decides to camp out in his backyard instead of sleeping in his bed, much to the chagrin of his mother. When his mother discovers the boy stole a bottle of wine, the father goes out to confront him.
The story does come close to cloying sentimentality when it’s revealed that the boy sleeping in his backyard was a ploy to try help mend his parent’s obviously strained relationship. However, the way the boy goes about it is very believable and it’s left ambiguous whether it will actually work or not. As a result, the story remains a heartwarming one without feeling like an extended Hallmark card.
Another stand-out story is “Eureka, California.” A man, nicknamed Trigger because of his temper, moves to the small town of Eureka, California from Los Angeles for work. While on the job, he stumbles across a marijuana field. He grabs some of the plants and takes them home before reporting the field. Even though he plans to keep the weed for himself, circumstances conspire to make him have to sell it off. He returns with the pot to L.A., where he’s forced to confront his past.
This story has a noir-ish tint. Trigger is a sympathic figure despite being a brutally flawed man. While the story seems to be leading into a more crime oriented direction, it instead ends on a tragic gut punch. It’s an ending that makes you entirely re-think everything that happened in the story.
Every story here works. The only one I found lacking was “Ling,” in which a young man’s friendship falls apart during a fishing trip. Even then, I wouldn’t call this story bad or even weak. It just didn’t reach the heights the other stories did.
Review copy provided
I could probably talk at length about every story in this collection. Every story here in entertaining yet melancholic, avoids sentimentality, and the characters are painfully, tragically real. Cromley's prose is simple and unpretentious, yet never boring. I think I can safely say that this now one of my favorite short story collections. Very highly recommended.