by Joe Ashby Porter
From the back cover of the 2002 paperback first edition:
“Joe Ashby Porter is one of the most consistently rewarding writers in the United States, and also among the most intelligently exciting.”
“Porter manages to accomplish impossible feats: He makes the wild sequence of dreams seem as inevitable as the weather, he turns the ordinary routines of life into riotous adventure, and he stirs words into prose that is giddy and startling and yet always taut, elegant, insistently beautiful.”
“With Eelgrass and his first two books of tales already a master of the American madness, Porter now magisterially withdraws from the corrosions (the corruptions?) of, say, Paul Bowles and that Pure-Products stage (scene, pulpit, gallery); with Touch Wood he proceeds to an even intenser and more ecstatic world (cell, exile, infinite space). I had thought to compare, or at least to relate this fabulist to Davenport and to Barthelme, for his sentences are as regenerative as theirs, and like theirs, showstoppers as well; but now I can find only the range and wisdom of Thornton Wilder to elicit as a lineage: such patience, such wisdom, such sweetness of assent to experience, its innocence, its wilderness. It means that ‘in the mind,’ as he locates it, we touch not only the lacrimae rerum but also the laetae; not just the tears and terrors, but the joys.”
“Joe Ashby Porter’s stories are irresistibly readable.... They all have, to some degree, the pleasant drifting and improvising character of fantasy. It is assumed (Roussel-fashion) that one can explore a mind as if it were a mine, that there could be an annual Biloxi convention of ‘character’ hunters, that an elusive person might put on ‘invisible disguises.’ At the same time, there are authentic milieux from Alaska to Spain; and moments of excellent concrete perception like this: ‘Oh-oh and I listened to the fat whirr of tires on the bridge overhead, punctuated by the dreamily soothing pitter-pat as they crossed expansion joints.’ In other words, one charming aspect of Porter’s fiction is its fusing of fact and unlikelihood, reality and the uncanny. One is also charmed by the Porter sentence, which avoids all stodginess: clear, and wonderfully flexible as to structure and diction, at moments comic or lyrical, it leads you on—as I have said—irresistibly.”
Touching wood acknowledges the sway of chance and contingency in our lives without entailing any facile despair. The gesture indeed manifests the guarded hope underpinning even the bleakest passages of these ten variously innovative fictions from Joe Ashby Porter’s past decade. Now grave, now twinkling with sly humor, the stories range across the U.S. from Key West to Alaska, and about the Mediterranean in Tunisia, Spain, and southern France.
Only the fifth book of fiction, and only the third collection of short stories in a distinguished career reaching back a quarter of a century now, Touch Wood presents Joe Ashby Porter, “an American original” (John Hawkes), at the height of his powers.
Joe Ashby Porter is the author of The Kentucky Stories, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, and Lithuania: Short Stories and the novels Eelgrass and Resident Aliens.