Whatever Used to Grow Around Here
By Lauren Belski
I think I underlined every sentence in my copy of this lovely little book. Belski, a Prospect Lefferts Garden resident who teaches at Brooklyn College, makes her debut with this story collection, each copy of which was hand-sewn by the author and her friends and publishers. Its contents trace what I imagine is a quasi-autobiographical arc: the narrators age from middle school to post-grad adulthood, bouncing around hometowns (in New Jersey), college towns (in Pennsylvania) and twenty-something towns (Brooklyn), in each grappling with some form of history. The title captures the central theme—it’s a book about reconciling the past with what overlaid it, whether it’s the industrial wastelands of New Jersey, a palimpsestic Philadelphia rife with Revolutionary vestiges, or the highways cutting through the American West. “I don’t care if they finally actually did kill Crazy Horse,” the narrator says in the first story, “Wilderness Jam,” as she rides in a car through what she calls the forgotten cowboy west. “If you let yourself stare into the horizon long enough you start to realize—they actually didn’t.”
Personal histories also loom large here, especially for characters whose adolescences—a time when “the idea of smashing an egg on a house felt like a true mission of justice”—are still present: either as memories or in the form of old friends revisited. Belski’s stories track how not only do the things we’ve done as kids follow us into our adult lives, but so do all the things all people have done—until, perhaps, you get to Brooklyn.
In the handful of New York stories, the characters seem less tethered to history. Sure, the conditions of its residents may be tied to the cultural conditions of generations past—the poverty of the underprivileged perpetuated—but they don’t seem quite the prisoners of it that their suburban counterparts are. It’s as if here, we write the histories. On a trip to the Met, one character describes Japanese calligraphy as “a dance of the hand. I am in love with the sky, it says. I will sing my fingers on silk until it reflects the mysteries of every blade of whatever is wild in this world. I will memorialize, memorialize, memorialize until everything to remember is sacred.”