Welding with Children is Tim Gautreaux’s second collection of short stories. It was published in 1999, but for some reason it kept appearing on my radar when I was looking for short story collections to read this year. Gautreaux is a southern writer (lives in Louisiana) and has been referred to as the “Cartographer of Louisiana back roads,” a moniker that is highly appropriate for this collection.
The stories in this collection are varied and diverse, but a tight, strong thread binds them all. The elements of similarity that run throughout the stories, however, never make them feel “one note” or repetitive. Each piece tells its own unique story, with an intriguing plot, rich characters, and an identifiable theme. The themes addressed all seemed to focus on the disconnects and barriers in life, both those that are inflicted on us and those that we create. I think that the collection, as a whole, is one of the more unified I have read.
I found that the obscurity and juxtaposition hinted at in the collection’s title (also the title of one of the stories) gave solid indication of the disparities and binary oppositions that occurred throughout the book: old/young, rich/poor, educated/uneducated, etc. Gautreaux is telling stories that are not pleasant. They are filled with individuals at the margins of “acceptable” society. But, despite this, or perhaps because of this, Gautreaux infuses each story with an affection and warmth that translates well to the reader, making us root for certain characters, even when a part of us thinks perhaps we shouldn’t.
My one complaint is the astonishing abundance of Cajun surnames. I realize the stories all take place in Louisiana, so the names, of course, make sense. However, it’s almost never necessary for a reader to know every character’s last name—especially when almost every single one ends in -eaux.
Take away for my writing:
Gautreaux is successful in one area that at times eludes me in short story collections: unity. When the connection between stories is apparent (a recurring character or specific setting, for example), that’s one thing. But sometimes, collections don’t feel cohesive. There is no apparent unification beyond the byline that they all share. But in these stories, Gautreaux fuses the stories with something that goes far deeper. He keeps the stories themselves diverse and unique, but they still all fit together as if they are pieces of a puzzle. While some stories are definitely stronger than others are, you can’t imagine the collection working as well without them all present and accounted for.
I’d like to go through the collection again at a later date (it’s a library book and has to be returned soon) and see if I can identify some more elements that connect the stories together so well. The quality is one that I’ve rarely found so effective in a collection, and I’d like to focus more on how, exactly, Gautreaux does this.
Strengths: diversity of narratives, strong characters in realistic situations, cohesive collection
Weaknesses: at times, the southern flavor can get a bit “precious” (example being the surnames)
Favorites: “Welding with Children,” “The Pine Oil Writers’ Conference,” and “Resistance” (among others)
Least favorites: “Misuse of Light” and “Sorry Blood”