by Derek Berry
In her debut short story collection Orders of Protection, Jenn Hollmeyer cartographs an ecology of escape in the state of Illinois—from fraught divorces, from crumbling marriages, from disappointing careers, from the past. At times messy or acute, these stories map out a constellation of dangers and abuse. The situations presented in the stories are recurring—drawing on a well of problems— but they are never unreal. Each character is human and aching, and this makes the reader care even when the plot itself becomes predictable (when, for example, a husband again cheats on his wife or a wife, her husband); these repetitions, however, serve to implicate the pervasive real-world presence of abuse. The stories work in chorus to tell a larger story, one of familiar wounds. We are told again and again stories of people seeking protection from danger because danger is real, is everywhere.
With precise details, Hollmeyer draws us into the lives of characters. She shares with writers like Lucia Berlin or Alice Munroe an eye for social gestures, aptness for letting the reader in on the character’s inner thoughts with the slightest movement of the face or body. This embodied writing makes us care—care, for example, about a social worker caught in a cycle of lost cases in the collection’s title story not just because she worries for her clients, but rather because we can survey what she has given up for her job: “Here is the bedroom with the milk-crate nightstand. Here is the bathroom with the single toothbrush. Here is the living space with the secondhand couch and stale kitchenette.” When Joe, oxygen-tank-anchored & nostalgic for his old neighborhood in the story “Ozone,” laments the loss of the neighborhood’s character, we learn of “the fresh eggs we bought from the chicken farm until the owners died and it was bulldozed.” The world Hollmeyer constructs is one that feels lived-in, one with real contours that embed the reader in what John Gardner once referred to as “the vivid, continuous dream.” This preciseness, this ability to inhabit a story, is what elevates Hollmeyer beyond the details of the stories themselves.
At times, too, I am astonished at the sheer brilliance of language. One should read Orders of Protection if only to appreciate the scintillating turns of phrases employed— at times gorgeous, other times surprising in its turns of metaphor. To introduce us to a dog with a recently removed cist in her final story “How Far Gone,” Hollmeyer writes, “The spaniel ran up and showed me her saved temple, the bare skin like a patch of walked-on bubblegum with stitches down the middle.” At other times, the language is evocative, such as when Joe in “Ozone” admits, “The breathing out felt like sparklers on the Fourth of July.” There were moments in Hollmeyer’s prose I admit I did not grasp the literal meaning of her figurative language, such as when she states in “Step Off at Ten,” “The frozen Illinois River stretched like a marriage along the right-hand side of the road.” How is a river like a marriage, or vice versa? I am unsure, but it is the kind of sentence that pickaxed my brain and became stuck there for several nights. Reading Hollmeyer’s prose reminded me of the tight sentences common in an Amy Hempel story—sharp and exact and somehow perfect.
While the collection boasts a few stand-out selections, including the title story “Orders of Protection,” as well as “A+ Electric,” “Another Round,” and “Ozone,” I am convinced of Hollmeyer’s excellence because of “An Hour You Don’t Expect,” which appears in the middle of the collection. Julie, a young mother with two children, struggles to keep her head above water until she meets a friendly Pastor Gladstone, who operates as a surrogate grandfather to the children; when Pastor Gladstone announces his late-stage cancer and subsequent retirement from the church, Julie is unmoored, uncertain whether she can maintain her goodness. For a rare forty-five minutes, I cared deeply about what church could mean in people’s lives, what role religion played in a person’s habits of morality, what a pastor could provide for the lay people of his congregation. It is a mark of a skilled writer to make one care about what one has not before truly considered, and this story moved me in a way I find difficult to describe. Perhaps Julie faces what many other characters do not, their present dangers in the form of looming divorce, the threat of infidelity, or the slow end of life—what Julie faces is self-doubt, the certainty that one day she will not be good enough for her children. Despite what dangers one escapes, despite the protection one finds in a home or community or another person, it still impossible to step away from oneself, and this anxiety, so obvious in “An Hour You Don’t Expect,” pervades each story.
These stories stay with you like a knife slid between the ribs. This debut collection marks Hollmeyer’s place among storytellers, sentence-scalpel-wielders, & empathetic observers.
Derek Berry is the author of the novel “Heathens & Liars of Lickskillet County” (PRA, 2016). They are the recipient of the Emrys Poetry Prize, KAKALAK Poetry Award, & Broad River Prize for Prose. Their recent work has appeared in Gigantic Sequins, Beloit Poetry Journal, Yemassee, Taco Bell Quarterly, & elsewhere. They live in Aiken, South Carolina, where they work at a Cold War Historic Curation Facility. Their work can be found at derekberrywriter.com