May 012015
 

Claire Szabo

 

Vanessa Blakeslee’s debut collection of short stoies, Train Shots, intimately examines how its cast of characters respond to change. The author puts her characters into challenging situations so that they must get what they need by asserting their agency. Blakeslee skillfully crafts a group of characters with diverse personalities and puts them into tough situations in which they do not always do or say the right thing. Despite their flaws, the main characters in Train Shots each take away something new from the challenges they face.

Though the characters and subjects in the stories of Vanessa Blakeslee’s Train Shots vary, each one exemplifies different ways of coping with change. Much of the change the characters experience occurs within themselves or their relationships and they must decide how to move forward.

The eleven stories that make up Train Shots take place from the Southern and Midwestern United States to Costa Rica. The majority of the stories are told through the point of view of a woman, with only four stories being from a man’s point of view. Some of the characters are married, others divorced, and others are single. They also vary in socio-economic status, with characters ranging from working at a minimum wage job to owning multiple properties. This diversity is also reflected in the plots of the stories themselves: A pop star struggles with the simultaneous lack of privacy and loneliness she experiences due to her fame by considering suicide. Carol finds herself in New Orleans alone after her husband is arrested for fraud by the FBI on their vacation, and starts to look at life differently. After the dogs she has rescued are stolen from her home in Costa Rica, a woman finds a new compassion for other human beings through her grief.

Although each character experiences self-discovery, they each take different avenues to get there. In some cases a fairly small event occurs, such as starting a new job or losing part of a Halloween costume. For others, self-discovery comes about through bigger events like addiction or the violent behavior of a loved one. The characters in Blakeslee’s stories are put into situations in which they must look within themselves for solutions to their problems. Ultimately, the characters come to the conclusion that they will have to make some sort of change in their lives to move forward. These changes are often made for the purpose of self-preservation or the preservation of a relationship.

This collection of stories is interconnected by various themes. Divorce, class, addiction, and isolation are examples of some issues that the stories deal with. Relationships are tested due to these themes and the characters are left to find solutions or to start over again. One more specific theme that appears in multiple stories is that of women being controlled by men in their lives, either by abuse or deception. One story follows a woman who, after her husband goes to jail for beating her, moves into a place with landlord who lords over her life by banning her from having male visitors. In another story, a woman allows her partner to convince her to use a form of birth control she is uncomfortable with and receives no sympathy when the method goes awry. These are just two examples of how some of the women are controlled by men in their lives. This overarching theme appears in many of the stories and presents these women with the conflict of finding their agency within relationships.

Blakeslee also captures how change can alter a person’s view on life. Change within relationships is a theme that is especially important to influencing the characters’ outlooks on life. The occurrence of a change in dynamic or feelings within a relationship triggers the characters to open up their world views. “Don’t Forget the Beignets” describes this newfound point of view: “Even to walk around and eat beignets and watch the passerby was no longer a small thing, but rather the heartbeat of life itself” (124). This quotation examines Carol’s reevaluation of life following the arrest of her husband, but represents the new appreciation many of the characters find. The subject of this appreciation ranges, be it for loved ones, for oneself, for small details one just began to notice, or for life. The characters all look for “the heartbeat of life” in their own experiences and find it in different people, places, and things.

In Train Shots, the characters are thrown into situations as diverse as their personalities and expected to stay afloat. The changes they experience, whether big or small, shine a new light on the characters’ lives and how they should be living them.

 

Vanessa Blakeslees Train Shots

Burrow Press