by John Vanderslice
The Cucumber King of Kédainiai is the latest, and long anticipated, story collection from Wendell Mayo, who returns to one of his favorite fictional subjects: the country of Lithuania, where the writer has traveled repeatedly in the last twenty years, and which he captured so unerringly in his 1998 novel-in-stories In Lithuanian Wood. If you are a fan of Mayo’s work—his deft touch, his gentle acquisition of the bizarre, his ability to invent situations that overthrow every readerly expectation—The Cucumber King of Kédainiai will hardly disappoint. Indeed, it only proves this master storyteller has gotten better.
Similar to the stories of In Lithuanian Wood, Mayo is both achingly precise in his depiction of downtrodden, post-communist Lithuania—a land that as Mayo shows it has hardly thrown off the memory of its recent occupation—and at the same time consciously mythological. So many of the characters in the book are fighting off one mythology or another, not at all successfully, and under great stress: the unnamed narrator of the title story who when brought face to face with a disarmingly charming crime boss is forced to give up his addiction to the idea that his traveling companion might marry him; Grigoryev in “Breshnev’s Eyebrows,” who is made to confront the fact that his girlfriend’s paint-by-number paintings are more attractive to art buyers than his own soul-stirred creations; the American English teacher in “Spider Story” who comes to understand that his Lithuanian pupils—and by extension the whole country—have not needed or ever really wanted his instruction; and the family of “Cold Fried Pike,” an unnamed daughter, mother, and grandmother who cannot agree on whether or how the grandmother’s entire family was executed long ago by KGB, a mythology they toss back and forth with the same dispassion as talking about, yes, that night’s failed dinner.
Passages in this book read like poetry, but at no time does Mayo’s style ever seem heavy-handed or excessive. Instead they are perfectly illustrative of the devastating emotional environments in which his characters find themselves trapped. Mayo is an expert at capturing awkward clashes between people of different nationalities, and we see repeatedly in the book a type of character he’s written about before with great pathos: the well-intentioned but out of place American, who usually ends up being thrown over by all that he cannot predict or understand. Some of these stories border on the magical realist, but that’s a border that the book as a whole doesn’t cross. They mostly end up being playfully weird, a particular talent of Mayo’s. On the other hand you have the little gem “Mountain of Dreams,” a piece of the tripartite story “Universal Store.” “Mountain of Dreams,” clearly written out of the folk tale tradition, is a haunting, gorgeous little nugget. But what’s more amazing is how beautiful all the stories are, even when they are suffused with sadness and desperation and the burden of history.
John Vanderslice teaches writing at the University of Central Arkansas, where he also serves as Associate Editor of Toad Suck Review. His fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in dozens of journals, including Versal, Seattle Review, Southern Humanities Review, Sou’wester, Laurel Review, 1966, Exquisite Corpse, and Crazyhorse. His short story collection Island Fog is forthcoming in 2014 from Dialogos/Lavender Ink Press.