CUTBANK REVIEWS: "Flight Path & Other Stories" by Jan Bowman

Flight Path & Other Stories by Jan Bowman
Review by Sarah Katz

In the ten heartfelt tales in Jan Bowman’s debut short story collection, Flight Path & Other Stories (Evening Street Press, November 2015), there’s a sense of urgency and purpose uncommon to most collections. The stories, which spotlight pivotal moments in the lives of her various characters—who range in age from eight to eighty—feel like “slices of life” (think Alice Munro), but their arrangement into a chronological “developmental” order ultimately helps to illuminate different methods of psychic survival. Moreover, because there is a story here for everyone—making this book a “bible” of sorts—I had the sense as I read Flight Path that Bowman needed to deliver this book, particularly into an increasingly polarized world.

This is an artful book, as well; Bowman’s acrobatic balancing of realistic plot lines and character development propelled me through without drawing attention to her “hand.” Among her strongest is “Mermaids,” the third-person narrative that opens the book. “Mermaids” tells the story of a preteen Emily coming of age during the dissolution of her parents’ marriage. Left mostly to her own devices at her parents’ beach house in Delaware, Emily obsesses over learning about—and potentially meeting—mermaids. As readers, we recognize Emily’s entrancement with a mythical creature as a means of survival, even as she comes to realize that mermaids don’t actually exist. The thrill lies in witnessing her trajectory and the evolution of her “voice.”

Bowman’s depiction of the relationships between her characters also feels quite real and exigent. The title story, “Flight Path,” another third-person narrative, examines the tensions between a middle-aged Anna, her disabled war veteran husband, Patrick, and their teenage son, Tommy, as they visit a theme park, King’s Dominion. The story unfolds via cross-cutting between the “past” event of attending the park, and the “present” relationship between Tommy and Anna, revealing the evolution in their relationships to themselves and to each other, and how, furthermore, they become continually shaped by new information. As a result, readers come to learn how Patrick, Tommy, and Anna handle emotional pain—in the face of both the present as well as the past—and how their handling affects themselves and each other.

As another example, Bowman’s last story, “After the Rain,” portrays the complexities of aging in the relationship between the widowed Maureen and her son-in-law, Clyde. As Maureen confronts ageism from her son-in-law, and as she concurrently confronts her own increasing awareness of her potential limits as an elderly person, Bowman leads us through a Grace Paley-like story, in which the ending forces us to consider the prismatic and varied “truths” inherent in Maureen’s experience. Here, there is no one “answer” to the central question of how we come to terms with aging, but Bowman creates several possibilities with her final scene.

Ultimately, Flight Path is a book whose characters matter to us because of their familiarity. They could be our neighbors, friends, and family members. Some aren’t completely likeable—Ted, in “After Life,” for example—but there’s something to enjoy about witnessing all of these characters, even as we wince at their decision-making. These are characters we admire, because, most of all, we have the unlikely opportunity to witness their vulnerabilities as they navigate a world of ordinary violence—a world filled with anxieties, illness, and war—but also a world of small and even mystical intimacies. I believe Bowman hopes to have provided a gift to her readers—that she wanted to invite carefully considered and empathic interpretations of her characters’ perspectives and experiences, as a means of equipping her readers with important tools for writing their own stories. Indeed, this is a must-have, marvelous book full of stories that readers will want to return to again and again.


About the Author:
Jan Bowman is winner of the Roanoke Review Fiction Award. Her stories have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, Best American Short Stories, and a Pen/O’Henry award. Her fiction has appeared in Evening Street Review, Uncertain Promise: An Anthology of Short Fiction and Creative Nonfiction, Roanoke Review, The Broadkill Review, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, and others. Jan’s stories have been finalists or short-listed for the Broad River Review RASH Award for Fiction, The Phoebe Fiction Contest and So-to-Speak fiction contest. Glimmer Train named a story as Honorable Mention for Short Story Awards for New Writers. She is working on a new story collection, working title, Life Boat Drills for Children. She has nonfiction publications in Atticus Review, Trajectory, and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a regular blog on her website on the writing life and interviews writers and publishers. 

About the Reviewer:
Sarah Katz is Publications Assistant at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. She has an MFA in poetry from American University, where she received the Myra Sklarew Award for her thesis. Her work appears or is forthcoming in MiPoesias, NANO Fiction, RHINO, The Rumpus, and others.