My one and only experience in Romania was five years after the fall of the iron curtain, the remnants of which were still weighty. Guns and gray were everywhere, and then there were stories of Ceaușescu and how he’d been the only person allowed to hunt bear. That night in the hills overlooking Brașov we ate bear from an enormous wooden board with raw garlic—because Ceaușescu was dead.
The Romanian government allowed Alex Pruteanu and his father to emigrate to the United States when Alex was ten years old (his mother had already defected), so it’s little wonder that Pruteanu’s narrative memory reaches back to salt mines and simple rural folk in his short fiction and verse collection Gears. While it’s impossible to fit all these stories and poems into a neat, ordered category, there is—as Pruteanu says himself—a theme of movement. I see this as usually young men travelling toward, for lack of a better expression, something better; yet I’m reluctant to say this assumes success. In fact, some of the US-set stories are about young men ruined by greed, drugs and perversion.
The 71 pieces that make up this pleasingly heavy collection are intricately crafted character studies, but they are also studies on culture and influence. This is not a collection you can read straight through in one sitting. The themes—oppression, existential angst, addiction and just staying alive in the modern world—are not light fare; which is not to say the stories make for difficult reading. The author’s prose style is remarkably readable.
Pruteanu’s stories about transient young men and The Old Country—a poor sobriquet, but maybe it’s fitting?—are more character/dialogue-oriented than the stories set in the United States, some of which (e.g. ‘Urban Legend’ and ‘The Informer’) read like a Tarantino screenplay transformed into a stream of consciousness narrative. Add poetry and an experimental piece one has to read upside down and backwards, and you’re holding in your hands an incredibly versatile collection.
These are stories of coming and going, leaving and arriving—of moving on? In fact, Gears is so global in scope that pinning it down is pointless. The opening to ‘Saints’, though, comes close to representing the collection’s narrative tone. Here you are:
First thing I ever did when I arrived in New Orleans was buy a bottle of cheap bourbon from the ABC to go with the cheap room in the cheap transients’ house on Josephine Street just at the edge of the Garden District. I set the bottle on the filthy table by the window and poured the golden juice into a small, dirty tumbler which I had packed in the duffel bag, and listened to Mahler’s 5th on my small radio.
I’ve chosen this passage because it demonstrates so many aspects of Pruteanu’s male characters, who are often highly educated Renaissance men who find themselves in transit, intoxicated and/or in rehab; but this passage also shows us the solid rhythm of the author’s prose.
The dialogue between mother and son in ‘The Osseous Tissue of Fish, Two Poems and One Song, How to Safeguard A House Key, They Drank Water Out of Jars, Where the Microphone is Hidden’—the title is almost as long as the story—effortlessly conveys the sound of these characters’ speech patterns. In fact, this is one of Pruteanu’s authorial assets: his natural ear for voices.
Great work. Important themes. Deadly, memorably serious.
Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O’Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Available from Amazon.