Kermit Moyer's first book of short stories, Tumbling, was published in 1988 by University of Illinois Press. Purchase it on Amazon here
FULL ARTICLE: The New York Times Book Review of Tumbling, August 28, 1988
THE EXTRASENSORY HEARING AID
By DEBORAH MASON
For the children in ''Tumbling,'' Kermit Moyer's impeccable first collection of stories, innocence is an unimaginable luxury, and the brief, magical phase Piaget described in which a child believes he is omnipotent - the king of the world - is a brutal joke. These children learn early that they are supporting characters, all too often foils, in a story that someone else is telling. To survive, they teach themselves to read the faces of the adults around them for cues as to their next line or move. And just when they start to decode the subtext of the adult's actions, the plot takes a twist they could never have imagined, and they find themselves flung back into powerlessness - or, even worse, complicity with an adult in ways they never intended.
The 12-year-old boy in ''Life Jackets'' is on a ship to Japan with his mother and sister, on their way to meet his father, who is serving in Korea. Billy is expected to act as ''the man of the house,'' but the women around him, particularly his mother's seductive friend, Mrs. Kincaid, provoke him, disconcert him and casually lay waste to his efforts.
''What really gets me [ about Mrs. Kincaid ] ,'' Billy records, ''is this black wire that leads from the plastic thing in her ear to somewhere inside of her dress. I think sometimes she may be able to pick up extrasensory messages on it.'' Like many of the adults in Mr. Moyer's stories, Mrs. Kincaid becomes, for Billy, a shaman who presides over the mysteries of life and sex. Yet she is also, to his distress, an emotionally flimsy creature whose choices are both haphazard and devious, whose errant disclosures of sexual longing and fumbling attempts at caretaking are misdirected and dangerous.
When what appears to be an emergency crops up and Billy grandly assumes the role he has been coached to play, savior and male movie lead, he is given the chance to penetrate Mrs. Kincaid's sexual smokescreen - and then, just as quickly, shamed back into the ignominious role of ''the little man.''
The children and adolescents in these stories are routinely expected to participate in murky emotional triangles, in the same way they are expected to brush their teeth each night before bed. Michael, the college boy in ''Coming Unbalanced,'' lives with his older sister, Candace, and her lover, Blanco, a mordant professor and Vietnam veteran with a mysterious crippling illness and ''a gone-to-glory look'' on his face. When Candace packs her bag to leave one day (as she does every couple of weeks), Blanco affixes her diaphragm to a tree, blasts a hole in it with his .22, then inadvertently shoots himself in the foot. Candace invents a pregnancy on the spot to persuade Blanco to marry her, and she doesn't hesitate to make Michael her co-conspirator in a scenario that trades on their earlier sexual complicity.
In ''Tumbling,'' his near-perfect title story, the author creates the most eloquent and agonizing of his narrators, Jill, a teen-age girl who has run away with her twin brother, Jacky, to find their father. Mr. Moyer catches with unnerving precision the eerie, tentative voice of a child-woman who knows too much and wishes she didn't, and whose expectations have run out.
When the brother and sister meet ''rosy apple- cheeked'' Mrs. Spicer in a Delaware laundromat, Jacky decides that for once he will be the author of the story: he presents them as ''Buddy'' and ''Peggy Sue,'' a young couple running away to get married because ''Peggy Sue'' is pregnant. But then, like docile children, they submit to Mrs. Spicer's hyperbolic mothering and breakfast of corn fritters, and to her sultry daughter, Sissy. Major Spicer, who likes to be called ''sir,'' greets Jill with a complicit wink. It turns out that Major Spicer has a script of his own, featuring his yen for teen-age girls, that overpowers anything the children could have dreamed up and, in the end, devours them.
The characters in this volume, the most recent in the Illinois Short Fiction series, are not mock children in the service of some literary or psychoanalytic agenda - romanticized innocents trailing clouds of glory or Freudian showcases of precocious sexuality. Mr. Moyer allows them to be simply children existing in the world, the most elusive creatures of all, and still manages to capture with his spare, unsentimental prose the jagged outcroppings of their disillusionment and pain. ''Tumbling'' is a work of ringing authenticity, and Kermit Moyer an impressive new voice.
''I respond to writers who say the forbidden truths,'' said Kermit Moyer. ''Tumbling,'' his first collection of stories, attempts to seek out his own forbidden truths about growing up, he said.
''I think childhood appeals to me because it was such a pivotal time - when what happens can have an enormous effect on the way you see the world.'' In consequence, he said, ''the sexual aspects of growing up just have a lot of feeling for me.''
Although he is in his 40's, Mr. Moyer considers himself an adolescent in many ways (''My imagination is closest to the world of youths''), and his ''average'' childhood still provides inspiration for his tales. ''In discovering the simple fact of my mother's sexuality,'' he said he suddenly realized, ''she's two people!''
Speaking by telephone from his home in Maryland, he talked about the strong sexual elements interwoven with his exploration of growing up. ''One of the reasons that there's so much sexual stuff in my stories, I think, is because of an interest in duplicity.'' In the 50's, when he was growing up, ''sex was still secret stuff, and to discover it was to discover a kind of duplicitousness about people you thought you knew - like your parents, for instance. And that was shocking.''
Mr. Moyer readily admits that the sex in his stories transcends the conventional to include scenes of incest, pedophilia and voyeurism. But, he said, ''a sexual fantasy that's projected on someone is just an example of what goes on all the time in nonsexual aspects of experience, too.''
Describing his young characters as ''in flight,'' often from their confusing experiences, he noted that while their situations are sometimes disturbing, the children exist ''on the verge of changing as a consequence of what's happened. They're discovering who they are'' at the same time that they're ''running on their way to becoming adults.''