In Nathan Leslie’s seventh book of fiction, Sibs, we come to understand “siblings” less as a definite term and more as a view through a lens. Close up are the brothers and sisters; further away are the friends, the mothers, the fathers, each and all finding their own place in sight. Leslie shows us that “sibs” is as slippery a word as any, wrought with contradiction and clarity, disconnect and understanding, and almost always with something waiting just below the surface.
More often than not, Sibs comes to us with a relaxed, unembellished voice—even at its characters’ most traumatic and revelatory moments, Leslie’s stories lend themselves to a straightforward delivery. Leslie once said in an interview with SmokeLong Quarterly that “fiction needs to get back to its roots—to become leaner and less stylized.” Sibs follows suit, with approachable characters and, when appropriate, realistically fractured voices. The cut-and-dry narrator of “Pool Night,” for example, says only what is necessary, in lines like: “Cynthia and I had just bought the house a year before. We loved that house more than anything. It wasn’t huge, but it had character and charm, and she kept it clean.” Throughout, Leslie wastes little time with longwinded exposition or theatrical description. His characters tell their stories in as honest and economical terms as they know, and because of this, any reader should feel welcome to walk in and read along.
One of the most notable elements of Sibs is its delivery of the unexpected. With plot turns sometimes literally falling from the sky, Sibs isn’t afraid to keep things interesting. In “Let Me Go,” a family’s low-key breakfast is interrupted by a superstitious landlord flicking drops of blood around the room; in “Joy Pasture,” a peace-and-love-preaching team of hippies find themselves abruptly held at gunpoint.
Most rewarding in Leslie’s surprises, though, are the small subtleties in language—the graceful, humble moments tucked between larger plot points. In “The Bed,” one character says about another, “there is something about her that wants to maintain even an inauthentic decency.” In “Just Cheese,” we are taken to the mind of a young boy as he says, “I’m wondering if I’ll like my fourth grade teacher. I’m wondering when I will go to the beach again, when we will move out of the house with too many steps.” These quick observations and recognitions slide in and out of every story and it’s a pleasure to see them unfold each time.
Sibs is not without a mood-lightening sense of humor. The narrator of “Joy Pasture” begins describing the house of hippies by saying, “when I walk up to the front door I can hear that Ravi Shankar sitar radiating from the walls like some kind of gas, and some dude firing double speed about how he’s down on Erich Fromm.” In this story and others, Leslie’s humor often reveals itself through characters taken from their comfort zones, each having to react in his or her own way. When an object comes screaming through the night sky toward the characters in “Pool Night,” they sit back on the patio and “all [pop] open a beer.” Leslie’s characters may not have you keeled over on the floor, but they’ll make sure you have a good time while you’re around.
The best stories in this collection are the ones that show a patient understanding of their characters. The deliberate jumbling of the boy’s thoughts in “Burlap” make us feel as though we are the ones with baby Caroline, holding “the moon in her eyes. The smell of her. Like powder.” Leslie’s keen execution of dialect in “Joy Pasture” puts us in the fertile field beside the narrator, our fingers in the dirt, feeling “the rot and life in it.” In “The Worm,” it is Leslie’s careful control that shows Davey lifting his little brother “as high as he can over his head”—what says, as if by all characters in the book, that “he can feel the air all around them.”
ALEX GUARCO works in publishing and has most recently appeared in SOFTBLOW, DIALOGIST, and The Siren Journal.