Clip and I run Pennypack Park with a carton of cigarettes, knocking over the joggers. He goes for the ankles from behind. When the joggers fall, he hangs over them and blows a lungful of smoke in their faces. The joggers cringe into little balls, waiting for a second hit that never comes. Then I follow Clip off into the woods.
We keep running.
I light two cigarettes in my mouth and hand him one. We both have the same cold sores from sharing, but in opposite corners of our mouths. Mine has gotten especially bad, and I can't open my mouth all the way. We hope to achieve good health from all the running because the park is hilly. But we've go no air from the smokes. We wheeze. (opening to "Chase Us," p. 93)
The other night at work, I regaled some co-workers with a few stories from college, some of which involve incidents, such as "going Krogering," that perhaps could have led to a few misdemeanors if caught. It is perhaps natural for middle-aged people (and I am resigned to the fact that I'll be middle-aged "officially" later this year) to reflect back on youthful pranks and malicious behavior and regale others with these stories. It's not so much that most of us are proud of these events (after all, knowing that I easily could have been charged with felony assault once is not something I'd like to share with younger relatives), but that these passages of youth, rocky and smooth alike, are the stuff of which we are made (pace Shakespeare). As Dylan sang, "I used to care, but things have changed."
These qualities are present in Sean Ennis's debut story collection, Chase Us. Set in Philadelphia and stretching from the unnamed narrator's preteen years through to early middle age, these tales are not as much a sequential narration of a band of friends' developments as they are variations on certain themes related to "growing up," or whatever that terms really might mean. Brash yet timid, obnoxious yet strangely affectionate, the internal conflicts that abound in male youth are illustrated excellently here in these stories. There are times that the reader might wish that a particular character or two might just be punched in the face or roughed up, but I think that is precisely the point behind having such characters populate many of the tales. Below are a couple of quotes from one of the longer and more moving stories, "Saint Kevin of Fox Chase":
The night Kevin was killed, I was out there running, too. For weeks, he had been trying to convince Clip and me to hang out at the Fox Chase playground on Friday nights. The older kids were buying beer and selling cups for a buck. The girls who came were getting wild, dancing to the music blasting out of car stereos and flashing their chests at the boys.
I was skeptical. The guys who hung around the playground at night were not my friends; they were bad news, got in fights, smoked. I knew some of them from soccer, and we had a tenuous truce because I could play. But I didn't want to tempt things, and didn't care too much about drinking beer. Seventh grade is a tenuous time. (p. 35)
Roger ran home at this point, told his parents nothing, probably swore into his pillow over and over that, of course, he never raped anyone. But we know that this was when Kevin was killed. On a busy street, under our saint, traffic whizzing past the frenzy, headlights aiming straight ahead. Some of the other kids limped around after that night, eyes shining black and their edges: they had fought a little and run, but these were not trophies anymore. (pp. 61-62)
Reading this tale made me pause several times. The subject matter is coarse, that of seventh graders trying to figure out what it meant to "give" a blow job while altering church hymns to be more vaginally-centric, but there is a vulnerability here that is more present than in most of the other stories. A teammate, a friend is killed due to the insensitive (it is never specified if the alleged crime happened; it is presumed, however), if not criminal, actions of another kid in the neighborhood. The narrator has to confront a host of confusing issues, ranging from a girl from across town seeming to like him to whether or not he should help Kevin or just run like hell. Ennis does an excellent job in developing the setting, as I could easily picture the scene of that fateful night. The narrator's confusion adds to the palpable tension here and while the teen boys-centric nature of the story leads to certain story elements being questionable in their treatment (such as the almost-cavalier attitude toward women), but that too seems to be part of the larger point behind constructing a series of tales showing boys trying to find their way in the world.
One of the few weaknesses in Chasing Us might be the few tales that touch upon the characters as adults. Not so much that Ennis does not continue to develop their characters, but after the escapades of youth, the problems of adulthood feel diminished somehow. There is something about youth, whether it is our own, sometimes exaggerated, memories of our exploits or the intense fears and doubts we weathered, that makes that time so special to us. This is why stories, like those found in Chasing Us, that help us remember so vividly our youthful selves are so enjoyable to read, even when the subject matter might make us squirm a little and chuckle a little nervously. After all, fart jokes never quite go out of style with men, n'est ce pas?