Talking to the Dead
Toby Olson Tampico (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008)
Toby Olson’s tenth work of fiction, Tampico, is made up of not only a series of stories about the past and death, but is told by dying men, John, Gino, Larry, and Frank, who live at “the Manor,” a decaying hospital where these former veterans have been stashed until their deaths. As the soil beneath a nearby lighthouse and the manor nurse Kelly’s home gradually crumbles and slips toward the sea, the question one might ask is whether or not these men will outlast their temporary haven or the house fall in upon their heads. Certainly there are plans afoot to close the manor down, which might leave these old and sick men with nowhere else to go.
As these figures offer up their pasts to one another, they become a closely knit community, reliving each others’ lives even as their own lives slip away.
They were on the floor together, off in a corner on blankets, and the
the chickens were watching them. I had the door half open, and I must
have heard something, her voice possibly, or seen the chicken light at
the end of its cord where she held it, wavering. I stopped there, just inches
before the door’s squeak, and heard the muffled grind of grain under the
blanket where his heels shuffled and a tapping that was the long electrical
cord striking the floor as she bucked over him, riding him, facing me, but
not seeing me.
The event results in the mother’s hate of her son, and three days later, at the age of 34, she falls to the floor at the kitchen sink, dying of a heart attack.
I turned back then and the house was gone, no longer obscuring sight of the
rise above it, and I saw the oak tree shimmering above the ruins in the last
thin clouds of rising smoke. And before I saw down on the ground, then lay
down, I think I heard the sound of sirens in the distance, though it could have
been my own voice, searching for this place of dead ambition that has been within
In short, each of these men recounts stories and stories within stories of love and hate woven through with what we all must ultimately face, death itself.
They moved in their bodies for a moment, adjusting their bones under
their skins. Then they stood perfectly still in the picture that was the
picture before it was taken. …A dull thud of explosive then a brief
white light, and for a moment all their faces were illuminated skulls,
empty in dark sockets, but their teeth in those perpetual and wise grins.
The seemingly unrelated tales they have been telling have suddenly become an interwoven story of their loves and life. The past, through death, has finally been married to the present.