Review: All That Is Left Is All That Matters

In the space of a decade, Mark Slouka has produced an essay collection, two novels, a memoir and a book of short stories. With the publication of another collection of short fiction, All That Is Left Is All That Matters, Slouka (Nobody's Son) showcases not merely his productivity and versatility, but his gift for creating consistently engaging and emotionally resonant stories in whatever literary form he chooses.
Though there is no overarching unity to the collection, a recurring theme is the relationship between fathers and sons. That's explored most powerfully in the terrifying concluding story, "Crossing," in which a "weekend dad" heedlessly risks his own life and that of his young son in an effort to ford a fast-moving river. The narrator of "The Hare's Mask," who possesses a self-proclaimed "precocious ear for loss," recounts the heartbreaking story of how his father evaded capture in World War II-era Czechoslovakia; he could not, however, escape the "long needle of association, of memory, for years" after losing the remaining members of his family to the Nazis. "King's Cross" features a protagonist who returns to the "darker, older overgrown" childhood home he has inherited after the death of his father, an event that summons up memories of his mother's passing and of his father's verbal abuse. And stories like "August," "Conception" and "1963" draw on a narrator's memories of his father from long-ago summers spent at a family lake house.
While Slouka's stories generally adhere to a more traditional style, they don't lack for the occasional narrative surprise. "Dog" is the chilling story of a cherished pet whose skin begins to sprout razor blades, but even with that bizarre premise, the tale's devastating ending reveals that it's as much about the power of love as any of Slouka's more conventional stories. In "Half-Life," an aging Florida woman recognizes that "the half-life of love is not that long" when her husband leaves her. Afterward, she experiences a series of unusual occurrences, like a vine that penetrates the wall of her home and a "cat print the size of a plate," signaling the arrival of an exotic beast in the aftermath of a hurricane.
"Everything's taken from us anyway. Without mercy. To give it away is like saying you quit just before you're fired," muses the narrator of the story "Russian Mammoths." That provocative observation sums up the pervasive tone of the stories in All That Is Left Is All That Matters. Despite their austere sensibility, stories as tender and beautiful as these are among those things that might, paradoxically, serve to persuade thoughtful readers that life is worth living. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer

Shelf Talker: Mark Slouka's melancholy short stories explore some of the darker aspects of our lives.

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