Many people in this part of the world know the border that separates Detroit from the Grosse Pointes. The drive down East Jefferson past the empty lots and boarded buildings–past all the people who live there–until you reach that dramatic line (transition is certainly not the right word; it feels too gradual, too understandable) between the city and the privilege that borders it has become part of the “ruin porn” tour of Detroit.
Some of the people on the east side of that wall of privilege try to build barriers on the side streets, closing off the connections between their world and the city. Others, like writer Kelly Fordon, keep their eyes turned toward Detroit and recognize the emotional isolation of the terrified citizens who think they are protected behind their suburban walls.
In her new collection, Garden of the Blind, Fordon has mastered that difficult art of writing stories that stand alone but that also share characters, places, and incidents to form something that feels almost like an episodic novel. She has meticulously constructed the chronology of her characters’ lives through forty years of development, from 1974 to 2014. That may be the reason that this collection feels so satisfying. When we read short stories we often feel as if we’ve looked through a small window at one tiny moment of the characters’ lives. Here, we get to do that and then also get to see other moments through other windows.
Fordon’s frank look at privilege and its consequences is clear from the first story, “The Great Gatsby Party, 1974.” Vice-president Jerry Ford and his wife, Betty, attend an annual party unironically modeled on the Fitzgerald novel. But antiwar protestors show up, and the young protagonist, Alice Townley, witnesses the death of her sister beneath the wheels of a car. Fordon establishes her theme and location and introduces her most important recurring character. And, incidentally, she also puts herself–bravely and effectively–up against one of the most famous novels in American literature.
In the title story, the last of the collection, Alice and the world around her are forty years older. She has a teenage daughter who is on the edge of some real trouble with casual drug use and the studied indifference of adolescence. Her school sends her to do “community service” at a school for blind children in the city. She is to help plant a garden. Fordon is almost brutal in her portrayal of the lives of the white people who think they are doing good in these devastated communities. But this story ends on an extraordinary image that brings visitors, residents, even meditating Buddhist monks into a fragile moment of hope. Perhaps something might come of it all, although Kelly Fordon is far too honest to hold out any easy promise. Fordon reads at Literati August 26 (see Events).