By Tom Lynch
Bridgeport native Billy Lombardo, who penned an award-winning collection of short stories in 2005 called “The Logic of a Rose,” has a new book via OV Books, a novel in stories called “How to Hold a Woman,” a devastating look at the life of a family after the loss of a child.
The Taylors seem normal enough until daughter Isabel dies; Lombardo focuses on the aftermath, as the husband and wife and their two surviving children each receive ample spotlight. What’s most remarkable, a testament to Lombardo’s sharp skill—and this has been written in most reviews of the book—is his avoidance of heavy-handed, cheap sentimentality. This isn’t a Mitch Albom book. Instead, Lombardo traces the process of grief with stirring insight, using smaller, more specific methods than painting a family in crisis with broad strokes. Relationships are strained, kids grow up and adults age. The misery goes unspoken. Isabel is everywhere and gone at once.
At first, Lombardo’s collection was just that, an assembly of separate stories, with nothing truly connecting them in any way. With some “major revision” work, he was able to tie the pieces together. “That was really hard,” Lombardo says. “I felt like when I was sitting around to write them, they weren’t connected. I was thinking about this family of two boys and a mom and a dad that were kind of separated, and I got obsessed with them a bit. But the other stories weren’t connected at all. After I attempted to tie them together, there were still so many holes. It still needed a lot of work.”
He worked closely on revisions with Gina Frangello at OV, a process he says he doesn’t resist. “I didn’t know about craft at all when I put my first book together,” he says. “Every time I sat down to revise, it was a major re-haul. I’d save the whole [file] under a different date, so there were up to fifteen, sixteen versions of stories. Going through that whole process I finally started to see revision as a creative act. As much as you’re jazzed up about your first draft—and it still feels great to get the first draft out—the revision is where the story falls together. I got a huge accordion file, from when I thought I was fucking brilliant with my first drafts. It’s a huge accordion file filled with rejections.”
Researching grief, especially with a kind of loss that’s impossible to fully understand unless you experience it yourself, isn’t a very tangible process, and Lombardo says he struggled a bit figuring out what was to become of the Taylors. “I needed to figure out a way for them to ultimately deal with it,” he says. “It was like, ‘Fuck, I don’t know what they’re gonna do.’ How will they react? I wanted to stay away from drama. So I ended up putting it off, putting it down for a while. I would go on long runs, walks, music-less drives to figure it out… I don’t know [heartbreak] to the extent that this family knows it. Jesus, I certainly understand love enough to know it would be unspeakable for me. Part of the reason it’s not spoken is my inability to deal with it, but also, I didn’t know how to. It seems fair to me to think that this is how they might deal with it. Seems plausible that there would be such a family that would deal with it in this way, just not talk about it, and it would veer its head in other ways.”
Lombardo’s working on a proper novel, set for publication in February of 2010 via Overlook Press, about an ambidextrous baseball player who pitches with both arms. Lombardo, who’s lived in Forest Park for nearly two decades, returns to Bridgeport this week to celebrate the release of “How to Hold a Woman,” at the Benton House. “The first time I was there was for a buddy of mine’s wife’s birthday party. I had never been on that street—it’s sort of a community center for people in Bridgeport, a bigger part of Bridgeport history that I wasn’t even aware of. I love going back there, hearing from people in Bridgeport. I wanted to go back to do something.”
June 18 at Benton House, 3052 S. Gratten, (773)927-6420, at 6:30pm. Free.