From Booklist, starred review
...for the reader of Hribal's raucous revisiting of family life in the last half of the last century, [The Company Car] is a trip that is as exhilarating as a ride on the most convoluted roller coaster. Vividly atmospheric, irresistibly winsome, Hribal's loving paean to the American dream is as comforting and familiar as the classic fifties-era sitcoms it richly evokes.
From People Magazine, April 30, 2001, listed under "Worth a Look"
This compelling collection of short stories and novellas gives the Cheever and Updike treatment to the Midwestern landscape.
From The New York Times Book Review, January 7, 2001
THE CLOUDS IN MEMPHIS Stories and Novellas. By C. J. Hribal.
By Kimberly B. Marlowe
It's human nature: we slow down at an accident scene, peering into the wreckage for some clue as to what went so horribly wrong, then hurry away, shaking off the image as soon as possible. C. J. Hribal's, new book probes what happens when memories won't be shaken, when an accident claims a son or a sister, or the estrangement between parent and child lasts too long to be healed. Hribal writes lean, nuanced prose, and the people we meet in these two short stories and three novellas are believable and tenacious, their states of shock or sadness real enough that the reader frets about them long after the book is set aside. In fact, Hribal's ability to give his grieving narrators such eerily accurate voices becomes something of a liability when the works are read back to back. The flat affect of the bereaved becomes too much of a monotone by the time the last (and best) piece rolls around. Better to read that novella, "War Babies," by itself to fully appreciate this nervy story of Rita and Betty Sabo, sisters who shuffle their many children between them and trade jobs at a canning factory so the one who is pregnant - "or at least more pregnant" - can get the line job that comes with a chair. Rita's unflinching honesty is the key to this novella's success as she struggles to understand the unpredictable actions of her bad-girl sister and the mysterious events that led to Betty's death. The answers, as with most tragedies, are not tidy or even complete. As Rita says, "Some things you cannot know even when you think you have a right to know them."
From Publishers Weekly, September 25, 2000
THE CLOUDS IN MEMPHIS, C.J. Hribal
Unlucky victims of fate confront the careless, sometimes fatal accidents of their haphazard lives in Hribal's (Matty's Heart, American Beauty) latest collection. In three heart-wrenching novellas and two short stories, mostly set in a small Wisconsin town, Hribal brings to life striking, surreal characters while exactingly detailing the mechanics of everyday existence. The portrait gallery includes a divorced mother attempting to cope with the trial of the blond preppie who killed her son in a drunk-driving accident ("The Clouds in Memphis"); an unwed mother suspiciously watching her co-workers at a canning factory for clues to her sister's death in the cooling tank ("War Babies"); a son who has escaped small town life recalling his father's last hopes and disappointments ("The Last Great Dream of My Father"). "Consent," a chilling interior monologue, reveals the secrets of a real estate developer who arrives at a ravine where an unidentified boy has drowned. The developer knows who is responsible, but chooses to remain quiet rather than upset the "tranquility' of his investment and disturb the affluent people who live on the site. Hribal slides the emotional fabric of America under a literary microscope to reveal the lies, betrayals and yearnings that connect and divide us all, giving his stories extraordinary power. He establishes an American landscape in the tradition of Cheever and Updike, though his is a world not of cocktail parties but of trailer parks, bars and courtrooms. The subtle power of these stories will leave the reader hungry for more.
Winner of the Associated Writing Programs 1999 Award in Short Fiction.
From The Wisconsin Academy Review, Summer, 2001 issue
By Jeremiah Chamberlin
Since 1990, the University of Massachusetts Press has annually published the winning manuscript of the Associated Writing Programs Award for Short Fiction. C. J. Hribal's collection of stories and novellas, The Clouds in Memphis, is the most recent recipient of this honor. He joins the respected ranks of such acclaimed AWP winners as A. Manette Ansay, Charles Baxter, and Jack Driscoll.
Hribal is also the author of Matty's Heart (1984), American Beauty (1987), and The Boundaries of Twilight Czecho-Slovak Writing from the New World (1991). The late Raymond Carver wrote of Matty's Heart, "Our literature is healthier, and wiser, with the publication of this collection of short fiction." This praise is particularly appropriate coming from Carver. In Carver's own writing, what is not said often matters most the things his characters are unable or unwilling to articulate to one another and themselves-and such is the case with The Clouds in Memphis. In these stories silence is as prominent as landscape; the characters live in and around it, and are influenced by it every day of their lives. It is perhaps for this reason that the entire collection takes on a powerful atmospheric quality, like cloud cover.
In a fiction climate that is frequently dominated by stories of unfulfilled longings and petty dissatisfactions, these stories are refreshingly honest and true. While some deal with common themes-a woman withdraws into the shell of herself after her teenage son's accidental death, a young boy experiences both the camaraderie and volatility of his father's drinking, a son watches his father defeat himself at the hands of advertising and capitalism-Hribal's treatment of these themes is anything hut common. Certainly these men and women sometimes do reach the bottoms of the wells of their souls and sometimes they do wonder what it might be like to live other lives, in other places, with different people. But they do not feel the need to apologize for their situations. This is how Hribal has crafted such a successful book: he has managed to steer clear of the millstones of sentimentality and self-pity that can drown a person. "We kids-we all looked out the windows," Hribal writes at the end of one story. "Brick houses, ranches mostly, filled our view. We wondered-would life be any different for us if we lived there, or there, or there- We came to the conclusion it wouldn't."
Jeremiah Chamberlin ~ short story, "The Month of Dying, " appeared in the fall issue of the Wisconsin Academy Review. His story "Stars Like Church Bells" recently took first place in the Madison Magazine Short Story Contest
From The Boston Globe, January 4, 2001
Agonized life stories, told secondhand
By Scott W. Helman, Globe Staff Correspondent
That you rarely witness the victims actually being victimized in C. J. Hribal's new collection of stories and novellas, "The Clouds in Memphis," doesn't obscure the suffering. We know that they hurt through what we do witness: the messy aftermaths of drownings, divorces, accidents, and failed business ventures that weigh heavily on onlookers and loved ones. Hribal does not show us the blood being spilled on the sidewalk; he draws the faces of those watching it being cleaned up.
In this insightful but uneven book, Hribal, an associate professor of English at Marquette University, seems to believe that the most resonant byproducts of crimes, tragedies, and lost, opportunities are their nagging questions: What if that's not the whole story? What if someone isn't telling the truth? What if life had dealt us a better hand?
The terrific title novella follows Janie, a woman suffering through a failed marriage and the sudden death of a son. Janie, like many of Hribal's characters, is forced to confront the reality that speed limits, moral scruples, and sturdy laws don't insulate people from tragic and unexpected occurrences.
As she watches others try to cover up their human vulnerabilities with cosmetics, it is Janie who gets the cruel lesson of how it is the internal injuries - both literal and figurative - that kill you: "Peter just had a little dirt on him. His T-shirt and pants were stained and smudged, his cheek was scraped and there was some grit in his hair. He'd come in sometimes looking worse than that after working on the car."
Not coincidentally, Hribal's first book, Matty's Heart, was lauded by short-story master Raymond Carver. Like Carver, he seems to have little interest in dancing with rich, contented, or born-at-the-right-time folks; he'd rather give us people like Rita Sabo, who, as the narrator for the novella "War Babies" in this collection, wishes she possessed the wisdom to sidestep the bad fortune so endemic to her Wisconsin environs. "If my life was a train wreck waiting to happen, I wanted to be at the controls," she says. "I wanted to have some say in how things collided."
Most of Hribal's characters don't have a say, of course, which is why their every breath seems to ask implicitly, Why can't things be different for me? Some of them seem to latch desperately onto the idea - and perhaps this is why Hribal finds them such an interesting lot - that brighter futures, just like winning the lottery, are within reach. He writes, "The numbers turn out all wrong, of course, but just before you write them down, and again before you read the actual numbers in the paper, you have this mystical moment of connection and believe that everything's going to line up for you. The crosshairs of the universe are going to sight true for you and you alone." It is as if fate is using these characters as some kind of cruel lesson to anyone who thinks life is bound to get better.
Some of Hribal's tales in "The Clouds in Memphis" feel too detached from the action for the reader to get any more than a neighbor's glance at what's happening. In the story "And That's the Name of That Tune," the kids, like the reader, aren't quite exposed enough to the source of their father's woes to make sense of them. It's as if we are all holed up in the bedroom with the lights off and the door cracked, and the late-night voices in the kitchen are just hushed enough so that we can't make out the arguments. It eats at us: If there is harm being done, we want to know where it comes from.
In that story and also in "War Babies," Hribal lets his characters use a. meandering, first-person narration to tell - sometimes redundantly - the stories of their lives. But though they are spun believably enough, they lack the economy of words that gives great stories (like "The Clouds in Memphis") their velocity. For instance, when Betty Sabo is found dead in the first few pages of "War Babies," one expects some fast-moving drama. Instead, the initial hook nearly fizzles throughout dozens of long-winded pages as her sister Rita struggles to understand.
But as Rita would tell you, the ruminations of the wounded perhaps shouldn't be subjected to stylistic judgments. No matter how they tell their stories, those who have witnessed or felt disaster have memories and consciences that cannot let go. Unanswered questions roil them every second of every day.
This story ran on page D02 of the Boston Globe on 1/4/2001. (Copyright, 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.)
From The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (11/19/00) and, in a slightly different form, from The Denver Post (12/24/00)
Heartfelt tales fill 'Clouds'
By Ron Franscell
From where we stand, it's next to impossible to know how deep a cloud is. It might appear to us groundlings to be a small scudding bit o f vapor thousands of feet directly above, but what we cannot always see is the thunderhead above it.
In C.J. Hribal's new collection, The Clouds in Memphis, the reader might, at first, suffer a similar lack of perspective, seeing five ordinary tales of disentangled families and tangles loves and conflicted imaginations. But Hribal, as associate professor of English at Marquette University, lifts the reader to a place where we can see what was not obvious before. The difference is extraordinarily moving.
At its heart, Hribal's new collection is about family loved and lost. Its characters are reaching out across time, space and pain to loved ones who have drifted (or been pushed) away, trying to understand what feels emptier: their presence or their absence.
In the title novella, Janie is a lonely, divorced woman in Memphis whose oldest son is killed by a reckless driver. An artist in her heart, she paints the affluent gentry's walls and refinishes their furniture as she wrestles with her grief and with the twisted wreckage of her life since her divorced from her philandering husband. The wounds repair slowly and imperceptibly, out of her control but in no one else's control, either: "Recovering now, she wonders how many of these women lose it every day and never tell a soul, never say a word to anyone. Or if they do, make it seem all right even as they relate it to friends over coffee in the sunroom: Oh, I had myself a good cry yesterday, you know. And the other women nod, and that's all that's said about it. A good cry, it's over now…If a housewife screams in a suburb and there's no one there to hear her fall--?"
Hribal explores both sides of a dark moon in two of the collections stories. In "War Babies," the sister of a skanky woman killed in a suspicious industrial accident seeks comfort by trying to imagine the sleazy circumstances leading to her sister's death. But in "Consent," a real estate developer who must grapple with a drowning in his newest subdivision reconstructs the event in his imagination-as does Rita Sabo in "War Babies"-and his mind drifts into treacherous moral waters that are anything but cozy.
Many characters drift through several of Hribal's stories, lacing them together the way parts of different clouds blend as they drift across the sky: "The Last Great Dream of My Father" is narrated by a prodigal son of Wisconsin named Matthew Keillor, who makes passing reference to his first love-and the mother of his son-Rita Sabo. Rita, of course, is the surviving sister and narrator of "War Babies," where her sister Betty's drowning is investigated by a copy named Clayton Jones…who also investigates the drowning of a young boy in "Consent."
The continuity lends depth to the collection and splices together events the way our brains splice random mind-sparks into logical dreams. The result is a remarkably sensual mural.
The Clouds in Memphis won the 1999 short fiction competition sponsored by the Associated Writing Programs, an organization of more than 200 colleges and universities with strong creative writing programs. Hribal is an Associate Professor of English at Marquette University. His previous books include Matty's Heart (1984), American Beauty (1987), and The Boundaries of Twilight: Czecho-Slovak Writing from the New World (1991).
Short stories are the cirrus clouds in the storytelling sky. Not the major storm systems in life, but merely its ordinary and customary violence: profanity, divorce, lust, sunburn, the loss of innocence, bad judgment, bug bites, betrayal in both body an soul, and dreams that don't come true. The new resurgence of the short story and novella in American letters is a good thing, and Hribal's collection ranks among the best in a year of marvelous widely published short work, from Sherman Alexie's The Toughest Indian in the World to Russell Banks' Angel on the Roof to Jim Harrison's The Beast God Forgot to Invent.
Long-fiction readers should sample Hribal to see how depth is not always dependent on length.
From The Memphis Commercial-Appeal (1/28/01).
Passel of short tales oozes emotion
By Steven O'Dell
C.J. Hribal not only gives readers an array of subject in his new book, The Clouds in Memphis, but he takes them through the collection of stories and novellas with an undercurrent of palpable emotion.
The collection encompasses characters from upscale suburban housewives to mobile home-dwelling sisters.
Hribal gives readers stark yet intricate settings unforgiving of the needs of his protagonists, who find themselves in dire situations of their own creation.
Hribal mixes narrative styles and points of view, and his ability to narrate in male and female voices is extraordinary. With two of the novellas, "The Clouds in Memphis" and "War Babies," readers will discover a subtle urge to glance at the back of the dust jacket, just to remind themselves that a man wrote the stories.
"The Clouds in Memphis," the book's first novella, offers the efforts of a divorced woman to deal with the accidental killing of her son. The struggle is more than that, however, because other conflicts lurk beneath the surface-how does a woman handle life on her own, how does she not revisit past obstacles? Regardless of how hard Janie, the sometime narrator, exponent of life after divorce, and Midtown Memphis resident, wants to move forward after her son's death, she never recovers.
Hribal, who taught at the University of Memphis from 1988 to 1990, describes people and objects with a keen eye: "The day maids are dropped off at six-thirty or seven by men in boatlike Chryslers and Cadillacs seven years out of fashion. The cars sputter away from the curb spitting oil like outboards, and with their ruined shocks and the suspension's swing and sway they really do look like boats riding low in the water."
"And That's the Name of That Tune" tells of a typical post-Korean War household in the Midwest. The family owns a station wagon, has a grandmother rehabbing from a broken hip in the upstairs bedroom, and a father spending as much time at The Office (a local watering hole) as he does at home.
Again, the author creates a hidden flow of unfulfilled emotions. The children will never know what they are missing because the father does just enough fathering to get by and the mother mothers enough to make up the difference. The narration, accomplished partially through the eyes of a young boy and otherwise through a third person narrator, again exhibits Hribal's acute sense of detail and feeling:
"Come summer our father took out the clippers and gave us all 'Indianapolis 500' haircuts: he tucked our heads into his armpit and shaved our heads down to the nubbins, accompanying each stroke over our skulls with 'VVVRROOOOM! VVVRROOOOM!' You stepped away from him when he was done with you, dazed from the strangeness of being in his armpit, smelling the acridy smell from flesh rubbing wetly on flesh, and feeling, yes, love."
"War Babies" is a saga of two half-Indian sisters, one born to a Germ POW from a nearby internment camp and the other born eight years later to a Korean War vet. The sisters deal with life as outcasts in a Midwestern canning factory town, where the only pastime for them is producing babies by men they love and loathe.
The real strength of the collection lies in its two short stories, "The Last Great Dream of My Father" and "Consent."
A son distances himself from his father, who is dying of cancer, in "The Last Great Dream." The aspiration of the title is to turn a 33-acre field into the shape of a whisky bottle in hopes of selling it as an advertisement to a distillery. The son recounts his father's toils with a remarkable sense of love and angst, realizing not in the words but in the story itself that the advertising company did not fail his father because they rejected his work, but that he has failed his father.
In "Consent," a young boy drowns at the hands of the friends he plays with. The narrator, a subdivision developer who comes to the site to find the cause of the drowning in his new development, realizes that the boys stoned their victim to death in a ravine. The narrator knows, however, that he must leave well enough alone, because the culprits are the children of his homeowners, and the dead boy is from the wrong side of the tracks.
Bifocals should be the metaphorical eyeglasses of choice when reading The Clouds in Memphis, allowing readers to see what is on the written page and what rests beneath. In these tales of restrained sentiment, Hribal opens the closet door, trusting the skeletons he finds there will justify readers envisioning skeletons of their own. C.J. Hribal is a skilled craftsman re-creating life experiences and our own.