Dipping a toe in Giano Cromley’s new collection of stories “What We Build Upon the Ruins” feels so welcoming that you slip right in. So beautifully written, so relatable; and then you realize the water is toxic, there are leeches. You are altered, but you can’t get out, you just have to finish. And you will enjoy it anyway, just as his characters survive the pain of their choices or the hand they were dealt, if scarred.
When I was growing up, there was a family across the street that seemed cursed—with cancer, child suicide and early widowhood. The survivors had no choice but to mourn and tough out some healing after their family unit’s amputations. How shitty, I thought, that they were the “lucky ones” still left. Cromley’s afflicted, imperfect, mostly blue collar, and utterly human cast is stung by grief, ignorance, perversion and weakness. The characters try to do the best they can, but they can’t help who they are and therefore can’t help but suffer what happens to them.
This collection opens with part one of a triptych about a young family trying to recover from tragedy, this one told from the older son’s perspective. They blindly try to move on, each in their own way, but the boy realizes, “What happened to our sister would always be at the center of our lives. My family, the four of us now, would be planets forever revolving around that moment.” The other two parts of their story weave a tale of grief and bonding, with humor and unease as they navigate the aftermath of loss.
There is an honesty and a humanity in each of these characters, even the most depraved, and when their horrible secrets are revealed or even just hinted at, you wince but find you’ve been pulled in and can’t help caring about them. We all have friends who’ve made terrible mistakes, and have sometimes been those people, and in this collection we are in good, if shadowed, company. (Kate Burns)
“What We Build Upon the Ruins: And Other Stories”
By Giano Cromley
Tortoise Books, 162 pages, $12.99
Kate Burns is a writer, musician and voiceover talent living in Chicago. Her voice haunted the elevator in her gynecologist’s building until by chance the practice moved. She taught preschool Spanish for three years and, like a bartender, grew to rely on the security of having a guitar, or a bar, between herself and the patrons. It’s only a matter of time before she succumbs to her family’s lobbying for a dog. You may see her walking this dog on Chicago’s wintry sidewalks with a leash in one mittened hand and a tissue in the other. She enjoys knitting rectangles in large font while binge-watching TV. She rues the fact that she hasn’t been to a movie in several adjacent seasons, but give her a book and she’s golden. She likes gardening. Plants are quiet. Her one and only child challenges her daily like the Mack truck of karma. Her favorite animals are seahorses and hummingbirds and her favorite food is popcorn. She decided on these as a teenager and hasn’t revised her opinions.