In Robert Edward Levin's first book of short stories, there is one common strand: relationships --- broken ones. Relationships with people, with life, with oneself and how the interaction affects our whole lives. There are some poems and two eloquent essays on country, freedom and the concept of time. The stories have variety, wit and poignancy and deal with some serious issues but they are light. If you want quick, easy read, this is it.
In the title story, "The Glass Heart," the main character, Jeffrey, is a perpetual loser who runs away from everyone and everything, because of his inability to commit and accept responsibilities. While running, he is dimly aware that "everyday is one more day farther removed from his nondescript past." He embraces new places with renewed energy but it‘s the same old story wherever he goes. He always leaves, searching for new places based on their highlights, almost as if, places are of primary importance and indispensable, while people are easy to replace. He considers Florida, "where the warm weather is," or Kentucky, "home to red clay, bluegrass and mint juleps" or Colorado, "where the sky is blue and land never-ending." Jeffrey eventually picks Colorado Springs and spends some time there, stealing another heart, gaining a new pick up truck before returning home to his mother in Port Charles, West Virginia. But that’s after he spends years bouncing "from town to town, job to job, bar to bar, and woman to woman." And his "glass heart" symbolizes a superficial reflective surface, which captures the fleeting images of the people, who help him or fall in love with him or simply see through him.
Another story, "Profundity of Madness," is about self-exploration. In a bizarre twist, the narrator talking about the mind and its deviations turns out to be an inmate in a mental institution and not the strange psychiatrist, as the reader assumes.
There are other themes in the book -- domestic violence, child abuse, or cruelty in other forms, such as the abusive, controlling father in "Letters from Home." A man who was a lousy parent, who sought to humiliate his children daily, wishes for more contact with them. We see him through his memories of his mistakes but instantly sympathize with his family because he is crass and vulgar in his ignorance in raising children. He’s old, he lives alone, as they have all moved away and his wife has left him too. So, he passes his days, remembering the things he had done to them and writing letters. He wants to reach out to them. His stream of consciousness reveals no regrets or guilt nor any desire to have done things differently. In fact, he’s clueless enough to wonder why they want no contact with him. He begins introducing each person and relating what went wrong, by saying,"Wrote a letter…" to "My oldest boy Davey Jr., " and "My second oldest Steve Ray" and "My only daughter Emily" and then finally, " … to my ex-wife Lydia." Davey Jr. is the only one who actually writes back, but as far as the old man is concerned, it’s "a bunch of silly nonsense ‘bout wantin’ to be left alone. Wantin’ to find his own way without havin’ to worry ‘bout me barkin’ at him all the time. Told me I ‘m always tryin’ to change his direction…it’s true, that the boy ‘s got a long way to before he ever catches up to me."
Steve Ray doesn’t write to his father for six years except to drop a line to say that he is now,"…living in Iowa, not too far from his older brother." And all the old man denies ever damaging Stevey ‘spirit or backbone’. All he did was ‘to encourage him to be more active in sports simply b’cuz he had the trappings of a real man. Even when he wasn’t showin’ the proper interest I kept pushin’ him, knowing fully well that it was for his own good…." When his wife tells him she wants to go back to college, he asks her point blank, "Now what the hell could somebody like you possibly get out of college?" And he can’t write to his youngest son, Red, because "he killed himself a few years back. Didn’t leave a note. Just left himself dangling from a rope…." So all he can do is "sit back in my rocking chair and listen to its lonely whine crawl along the dusty floors of this drafty house."
In "The Story of Nick," a lonely man comes alive when he wears a Santa suit, transforming himself and changing the lives of three children. He is a man with a special gift, destined only to give, not to receive.
Levin is good at portraying pain, sadness, rejection, loneliness and horrors in the lives of very ordinary people. He captures them, frozen in time, to tell their stories. He lives in Michigan, is working on his third novel. He is the author of the thriller, The Lizard and the Fly, as well as the co-author of the soon to be released About Face. The Glass Heart is his first collection of stories.