rev. of Absent Without Leave and Other Stories by Jessica Treadway

Issue #59
Winter 1992-93

Without, a doubt,
Absent Without Leave and Other Stories, Jessica Treadway's first book, is one of the most powerful debuts by an American writer in years. The ten stories in the collection are emotionally raw, unflinching in their honesty and generous in their depth. In another writer's hands, the situations presented here often about fathers and daughters might seem melodramatic, at best sentimental, but Treadway is able to render the tragic and cruel things people do to each other with authority and, ultimately, with surprising compassion.

In the opening story, "And Give You Peace," two sisters meet for lunch a year after their father inexplicably shot their sister and then himself. The narrator tries to warn her younger sister that time will not necessarily temper their grief: "I want to let Christine know what is out there waiting for her, but what can one person promise another about this? About what starts up, again, when the world you knew has stopped?"

In the absence of answers and consolation, many of the characters in the book succumb to their weaknesses, frequently to alcoholism. Three related stories show the Griffith family at progressive stages of dissolution. In "Absent Without Leave," one of the daughters, Francie, and her father arrange a meeting with a real estate broker at their family home, which they have decided to sell off. They are both drunk when they arrive. The broker turns out to be an old classmate of Francie's, one who had worshipped her. Francie, whose marriage is falling apart, can no longer deny what her life has come to, as she and the classmate reminisce about high school, about the time they dissected a pig together in biology: ‘"I remember thinking, Nothing could be worse than this. If you can get through this, you can get through anything.’ I began laughing with him, and then I was horrified to realize that I was not laughing anymore, but crying. By the time I knew it, it was too late."

Survival is sometimes all one can hope for in Treadway's world, anything more like forgiveness inconceivable. Perhaps that is why the last story in the book, "Something Falls," works with such force. A law student reports she has been raped, but it is slowly revealed that the actual assault occurred many years before, by her father. What makes the story so disturbing is that it is told from the father's point of view, and it becomes impossible, as much as one resists, not to feel some sympathy for him. Even a counselor looks at the father with a mixture of pity and contempt when she confronts him with the accusation, and he thinks, "If I told her this what I recognize in her face, as she appears to let the blade drop she would deny the mercy, and claim only her disgust. She would be ashamed to admit compassion for what I'm suffering now. Yet I know she feels it. . . . There are certain things we learn by being human, and one is that we're more alike than we can bear."
Only through Treadway's mastery could such a sentiment seem at all acceptable. Although the reader might not forgive the father, one understands him to an extent, and throughout
Absent Without Leave and Other Stories, Treadway compels us to view all her characters in the same light allowing for the common, fatal flaw of being human.