Andrew Porter writes with the voice of an older storyteller. The author, who'll be appearing Monday at the Author's Corner of the Illini Union Bookstore, published the first story in his Flannery O'Connor-award winning collection The Theory of Light and Matter when he was still in his early twenties, a student at the University of Iowa. But the voice of the story's narrator, who's looking back at the death of a childhood friend who'd climbed into a mysterious sinkhole in front of his house, is so patient and so masterful in the slow revelation of what happened, that one would think the story was penned by a much older writer.
The calm, retrospective nature of his delivery works well in this debut collection as Porter, in each story, seeks to understand the nature of the middle-class people who grew up and continue to live in the suburbs. His characters are nearly all men looking back at the events in their lives that changed them, whether it was hosting a gay exchange student who got in an abusive relationship, discovering a mother's lesbian affair with her neighbor, or having a brother who raped a drunken girl at a party. Yet in each story, the plot is understated and prone to subtle shifts, avoiding the clichés and melodrama that so often accompany stories of family dysfunction.
There is a sadness that runs through all of Porter's stories that is reminiscent of Raymond Carver's work, but where Carver often focused on downtrodden people who struggled with broken families and addiction, Porter's characters could be nearly anyone who lives in America's vast swatches of suburbia. Porter's characters often appear to have good relationships and healthy self-images, but it is in his slow unpeeling of their layers that their complexity is revealed.
It is interesting to find in this collection that Porter, now in his mid 30s, writes about people living through the 1970s, '80s, and '90s without any whiff of pop culture. In his spare approach to people and their relationships, it is refreshing to read about kids growing up in the 1980s with a lot more depth and subtlety than a VH1 special. In fact, at times, without the references to feathered hair, leg warmers and spandex, the tales seem almost timeless.
Andrew Porter will be reading from and signing copies of his collection The Theory of Light and Matter at the Illini Union Bookstore on Monday, Feb. 9 at 4:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.