We Could’ve Been Happy Here by Keith Lesmeister

-By Terry Melia-

We Could’ve Been Happy Here is a collection of twelve bittersweet stories, all set in contemporary Midwest USA. This is a debut from Iowa-based teacher Keith Lesmeister whose gift lies in striking a fine balance between the tender and the tragic.

Lesmeister writes with a lean concise style dealing with complex adult and coming of age issues that capture the characters in moments of decline. These are deceptively quiet stories that display a talent for wit and lightness sprinkled alongside a heap of angst.

The main characters are all somewhat flawed. The opening, ‘Nothing Prettier Than This’ and the finale, ‘We Could’ve Been Happy Here’, feature a failed father who is in conflict with nature and himself. With little experience of ranching, he fails in his task of managing a herd of cows which wander off course and out of his control. His attempt at bringing them back seems as unlikely as his chances of rescuing his failed marriage. Along the way, he takes comfort in the companionship of a young married woman who is dealing with her own chequered past.

Throughout the collection, we meet several men who have lost custody of their children, with a common theme of past failures undermining a path towards a brighter future. In ‘Burrowing Animals’ the main character is living rough out of his car. Tired, out of work and hungry, he turns to his parents as a last resort for help. Speaking to his dad on the phone, he tells him: “Things are getting kind of rough.” His dad responds none too kindly;

“Rough… Jesus Christ. I slept in a jungle in Nam, gooks hiding out in trees waiting to blow your fucking head off. What you got? Couple aches and pains?”

In my favourite, ‘Today You’re Calling Me Lou’, a drunken grandmother makes her grandson barter, seemingly on a whim, for a kayak at a car boot sale.

‘It’ll probably cost a fortune.’
‘We’ll Jew’em down,’ she says.
‘Lou,’ I say. ‘You can’t say shit like that anymore.’

In ‘East of Ely’, a man and wife decide to rob a bank in order to put some spark back into their marriage;

What wasn’t a thing any married couple might do was rob a bank. But that’s exactly what we did. On June 12th, the day of our twenty-fifth anniversary, we walked into the Ely Credit Union wearing masks, holding canvas bags, and clutching plastic pistols that we purchased at the Dollar Tree, and we used them to paralyze the bank staff while a teller–previously designated by my wife–unlocked the tills of money.

‘Lie Here Next To Me’ is perhaps the most bitter of the stories. A young woman, Sally, leaves school and sets aside any personal life of her own in order to take full time care of her dying mother. Inwardly, Sally gets off the toilet pondering the futility of leaving the seat up or down. Outwardly, she’s been wearing the same set of clothes for the last four days;

She thought, what’s the point? It was only her and her bedridden mother who, with Sally’s assistance, got up once a day to pee.

Teasingly Lesmeister doesn’t tell us how the stories end, leaving us with an essence of the characters strange and dark souls whose journey will take them to whatever destiny has in store. I’d like to read a companion collection, with the same characters maybe five years from where they are now.

I found all of them a mixture of brutal and a laugh out loud. Delving each chapter and new character was as comfortable as an old pair of slippers. This is an author to watch out for.

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