The theme that runs throughout Nathan Leslie's sixth collection of short stories, Madre
, is motherhood. Throughout the stories, motherhood is seen as a good thing, against which the female characters measure themselves and toward which they are moving, as if for personal fulfillment, sometimes blindly, sometimes deliberately. It doesn't necessarily require biological birth, but an attitude, a behavior. In "The Building," for instance, we meet a woman who feels she may be a failure as a mother, a charge leveled at her by her daughter ("Abby claimed that I was more interested in fame than raising daughters."). She's an architect, as alluded to in the title, with college-age daughters with whom she cannot connect; she feels guilty for finding more satisfaction in her work than in her relationship with her kids.
In the second, unrelated part of the story (in terms of plot, anyway), a minimum-wage worker finds meaning in her life in her children; her job as a maid, which she loses in caring for her boys, is irrelevant to her life, even as she needs financial support for herself and her sons.
Similarly, in "I Drove Through" a woman whose husband of forty years has left her for another woman tries hard to be supportive to her son, whose marriage she sees as a failure – meddling in his life is the least she can do ("I had to at least try to mother him, otherwise I wouldn't be able to look at myself in the mirror."). The son, like his father, is unfaithful to his wife. Only mothers, as it were, are loyal and devoted. True mothers.
The mother ... finds focus and a true purpose in motherhood – and the world is a better place for it.
This plot-line of a mother rescuing a son is likewise found in "Bad Seeds," only this time the mother uses "tough love" to straighten her boy out. Set in the south of California, where it meets Arizona, the story is told, as several in this collection are, from the perspective of a teenage girl. Her brother has come under the influence of "skinheads" and gets in serious trouble when his friend, "Sick Boy," shoots a Mexican man. The children's mother seems to be drifting through life until she comes to the rescue of her son, retrieving him from Yuma, where he's in youth detention. She lays down the law to the boy, Cody, and gradually he becomes a decent person again. The mother even muses that in a way she's glad that the trouble happened to Cody. "It's made me a better mother," she says. "Maybe I stopped wanting to be responsible for a while." She finds focus and a true purpose in motherhood – and the world is a better place for it.
This idea of achieving a new focus also appears in "Cobblestones." In this story, Max and Pam, a childless couple whose marriage seems to have lost its luster, find new meaning in their lives when parenthood is thrust upon them by Pam's sister when her mother-in-law has a heart attack. Joanna leaves her five-year-old son Alex with Max and Pam, who make discoveries about themselves through the experience.
In "The Wallet," a dysfunctional family – one in which the mothering instinct is twisted and suppressed – is encapsulated in the symbol of the wallet, which is a Nazi relic from World War II, made from the skin of Jews.
Other stories take a more humorous bent on motherhood and the way it can disrupt a family's life. In "The Towel" a new father is repulsed by the demands of the newborn while his wife finds real fulfillment in the care of her baby, much to her husband's chagrin. Similarly, in the story "Tart," a daughter comes between a man and a woman again. The mother-daughter bond is shown as an exclusive, precious relationship from which the father feels excluded – and resentful.
Leslie has a poet's keenness for words, their metaphorical resonance, and this is evident in his spot-on titles. A good title is like a symbol, capturing the essence of a narrative, its implications. "The Towel," for instance, refers to the rag with the baby's puke and effluences, with which the mother cares for her baby. To the husband, Norm, it symbolizes the repulsive messiness of child-care. To Tracy, his wife, it represents her mothering, with elements of martyrdom on behalf of both. In "The Wallet," a dysfunctional family – one in which the mothering instinct is twisted and suppressed – is encapsulated in the symbol of the wallet, which is a Nazi relic from World War II, made from the skin of Jews. "The Building" alludes to the architect's dream and to a church in which comfort is found, like motherhood itself, but it also suggests the building of a family on solid foundations of a love that is fostered through motherhood. Even in "The Fire Pit," a story which seemingly has no real mother figure – Bo, the narrator, struggles to be a surrogate dad to a troubled boy – the title suggests so much more than the actual fire pit that becomes the pyromaniacal obsession of Floyd, whose mother, Mama Floyd, seems ineffectual, more a victim than a force for anything useful. The "fire pit" may even expand to include life itself.
Indeed, the main action in Leslie's stories is always interior. Psychological motivations are always in sharp focus here, but without a moralizing tendency.
The characters in Leslie's stories all have a sort of downtrodden appeal – wives who have been abandoned by their husbands, teenagers adrift in a confusing sea of adulthood, men who have lost their faith in God or any other sustaining purpose. Out of this bleakness, the promises of motherhood offer some principle of enduring value, even redemption. Sometimes the characters are endearing for being so existentially lost; sometimes they are just pathetic, depending on their responses to circumstances. The reader is ready to loathe Max in "Cobblestones," for instance, for being a self-absorbed shlub, but then he surprises us.
Indeed, the main action in Leslie's stories is always interior. Psychological motivations are always in sharp focus here, but without a moralizing tendency. Circumstances take place that alter how people regard themselves and their prospects. If a boy develops an unhealthy attachment to fire or to hoodlums, it's how this reflects back on the other characters that's important, how their interior responses motivate them in real-life behavior. This is often reflected in the lyricism of the prose. In "Cobblestones," Leslie writes, "Who could have predicted their acute level of intimacy, an intimacy that sucked Max and Pam together like two lampreys to the flank of a shark?" What a terrifying image! And yet it captures so well the almost claustrophobic symbiosis of the predatory nature of love between people depending on each other for a sense of purpose.
Leslie's other collections, such as Believers and Drivers, have similarly unifying themes that give his books a sense of cohesion, rather than the feel of a random assortment of fictions. Madre is a potent meditation on the implications of motherhood, from which the reader draws insight and entertainment in equal measures.