Eight Mile High
Jim Ray Daniels
(Michigan State University Press)The first seven stories of Eight Mile High take place in Rome, the name the people have given to an area just over the border from the suburbs of Detroit. The families all work in the Ford plant, and they're neither poor nor rich.
They all know each other. The narrator tells us that when he was making time with his high-school girl-friend, he knew that he had better get out of her place "before her father showed up."
I knew when they changed shifts, when he worked overtime. All you had to do was walk down the block and look at the cars or lack of cars to know who was working when and how much our fathers were getting. We all punched the plant's time clocks.
Daniels obviously knows the world of lower middle-class working men and women, how they lived, what they thought. There's gossip and kids pretending they know far more than they do and kids at war and in love with their parents: "In the way of teenagers worldwide, I both hated my parents and loved my parents."
There are hippies and fat kids and brothers to be avoided and new love affairs. When he was in the eighth grade, James fell in with Marlene. Both of her parents worked, "and we took advantage of that." Of course there is the neighborhood snoop, Mrs. Wakowski. "When the bell rang, you knew it was her --- her or a traveling salesman or the police or missionaries from Mars."
The story is called "Pearl Diving" (they called their neighborhood Pearl --- after the street of the same name) and it's the best of the lot. Marlene (the one who had the gumption to say to Mrs. Wakowski, "Hey, aren't you in the wrong house? Don't you live across the street?") dies in a fire in the house and we've lost a friend. The writing is taut, plumbs excellently well the feelings of those on the cusp, those at the time of their lives when they don't know whether to laugh or cry or give an insult or try to get a kiss and who don't trust words so much that they scarcely know what they are feeling.
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But Eight Mile High goes strange and weird after we leave Pearl Street and the change is so odd that we're not sure that we're in the same book by the same author. In the first few stories Daniels is often tender, wisely seeing a world now gone. But in the second half of the anthology, somewhere around page eighty or so, things turn mad and brutal.
The main character in the story "AWOL" is tough and thuggish. After he gets in a vicious battle with the owner of a motel, at the moment of escape, he gets bashed with a monkey wrench again and again, enough times that he is blinded and crippled for life and the reader is not only shaken, but wondering what exactly has happened to turn the stories so savage.
In "Target Practice," Terry offers to give a beer to a man who he has just shot, dying in front of him. The author's explanation for Terry's actions: "He was nineteen, and he'd just shot a man. He could have just stolen the guy's car and wallet, let him crawl back to the main road, but robbery wasn't his motive." As Daniels stories turn to something you would read in "Adventure True Story," "Swank," or "Soldier of Fortune," the language goes a bit frothy too. This from a story about a passionate love affair:
The breakup centered on mismatched hickies and dickies --- betrayal and counter-betrayal and stale mates (two words). The usual, I'd come to learn, back then, it was all high drama and low blows.--- Pamela Wylie