The Wheel of Desire

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The Wheel of Desire and Other Intimate Hauntings
Writers Club Press
ISBN: 0-595-09306-X
Trade Paperback, 236 pp.

The ghosts in the home of a dead lover. An angel with a gunshot wound in her wing. A painting with the power to seduce. A startling wedding night confession. A shy middle-aged virgin who sees his dream lover in a convenience store. An old man who hires an arsonist to burn away his memories. A child who waits three decades to confront the stepfather who raped her. The truth behind a woman's accelerated aging disease. An all-night DJ fascinated by the teenaged hooker outside his studio window.

From the commonplace to the surreal to the supernatural, from the erotic to the macabre, The Wheel of Desire is a collection of stories that explore the symphony of the flesh, the deep and lingering connections that shape the individual soul. Full of joy, pain, and wonder, they introduce us to lovers and loved ones lost and found, obscure objects of desire, loneliness and longing and the choices that arise from the labyrinth of the hopelessly human heart.

The Buffalo News
Sunday July 2, 2000
A Literary Tour of a Carnal World
by R.D. Pohl

The men and women in Gary Earl Ross' short stories are spiritual creatures navigating their way through a carnal world. They understand the temptations of the flesh and are transported by them, yet are no less moved by the balm of forgiveness or the searing heat of grace.

The 19 stories that comprise Ross' aptly titled first full-length collection "The Wheel of Desire and Other Intimate Hauntings" (Writers Club Press) are tales of the erotic imagination, its manifestations and suppressions as indices of meaning in our everyday lives. To his credit, Ross understands that eroticism is a function of memory, longing and desire. It has as much to do with what happens from the neck up as what happens from the neck down.

Ross, who is one of Western New York's most active and versatile literary talents, is a classic storyteller in the tradition of Chekhov, Maupassant and Poe. An award-winning short story writer and essayist, professor in the writing program at the University at Buffalo's EOC, and frequent contributor of commentary pieces to public radio and the opinion pages of the Buffalo News, he is a distinctive prose stylist whose carefully crafted sentences and paragraphs convey a formal but not necessarily distant tone.

Literary credentials notwithstanding, Ross is also a child of the TV age. Several of the finer stories in the collection suggest what might happen if cable television's steamy "Red Shoe Diaries" were grafted onto episodes of the "Twilight Zone." Some characters get the opportunity to live out a certain fantasy or pursue an object of their desire only to discover that the boundaries between their real lives and their imagined ones are not where they expected them to be.

In "The Shadow Lover," a middle-aged woman whose husband has lost interest in the physical aspects of their marriage obtains an African doll with mysterious properties to revive her sensuality, but there is a >heart-breaking trade-off involved. In the more disturbing "Come Die in My Arms," a lonely man meets the physical embodiment of the woman of his sexual fantasies, only to become her unwitting bodyguard/stalker. In "The Nest," a woman's lifetime of quiet desperation as a homemaker comes to an incendiary climax.

In "The Promise," Ross writes of a marriage undermined by a big secret, setting the stage with a prologue that Rod Serling himself would be proud of: "However experienced in matters of the flesh, no man forgets his wedding night. For some, that first intimacy after the exchange of vows is the final passage into true manhood, even if those vows are later abandoned. For others it is a time of apprehension, a pivotal moment whose success or failure may determine the course of the entire marriage. For the lucky it is the start of an enduring adventure fueled by passion, love, and hope. But for Charlie jackson, his wedding night was the beginning of the end of his life."

Providence and astonishing coincidence play a role in "The Painting," a self-reflexive story about the seductive quality of representation and "A Kokujin's Tale," in which a woman of mixed heritage has a chance to put an end to the pattern of lies and abuse that plague her family, but can not reveal her true identity. In the collection's title story, a grateful, dying woman orchestrates a romance between her lover and the woman who will move into her apartment after her death. "The Wheel of Desire" here represents both a metaphor and archetypal way of thinking about how love and justice are distributed in a moral universe.

Two of the stories in this collection, "Sextette: Disparate and Desperate Desires" and "Seventeen Movements in the Symphony of the Flesh" are narrative montages presenting a sequence of related vignettes, told in an understated, cinematic style. In what is almost certainly the volume's finest story, "Why Do Angels Bleed?" a 19-year-old woman named Cina, who has grown up motherless and developmentally challenged, lives a sheltered life in a small apartment with her overprotective father, the building's superintendent. Her only diversion from household chores is feeding the pigeons that gather in the feeding cages her father has built for her on the apartment building's roof.

One day she climbs to the roof to tend to her birds, only to find a wounded and fallen creature, a hairless young woman with golden skin and wings. The she-creature's body is drawn up in fetal position, with a single blood encrusted bullet hole through her upper left wing. Telling no one, including her father, Cina finds food and shelter for the creature she assumes is an angel, her angel, and slowly nurses it back to health. The two communicate wordlessly, perhaps telepathically, until each understands the other's vulnerability and fear. When it is time for the angel to leave, she grants Cina one reciprocal wish that represents her soul's own aspiration.

In less skilled hands, the story might turn out to be so much new age piffle. Ross, however, employs a matter-of-fact tone that consistently underplays the story's supernatural possibilities. Is the angel real or a projection of Cina's own loneliness and isolation? In a way, it hardly matters. What matters is that Cina discovers her own capacity for nurture and caring, that she has underestimated herself just as others have underestimated her; that she is her own best guardian angel.

Although most of the characters in Ross' stories are proud African-American men and women, the ugly legacy of racism figures as a theme in a handful of these stories. In "How Granny B Came North and Why She Hates Peanut Butter," we revisit the South Carolina of 1923, where a black man could be lynched simply to avoid paying him a legitimately earned wage.

That man's widow---the great grandmother of the narrator of the story---recalls how abruptly her life changed, how she never got a goodbye kiss: "Some nights, when I can't sleep and I'm all alone in that great big bed, I stare into the darkness with these tired old eyes and I see things. Things I'd offend God with if I described them to a boy little as you. And I hear things, things that leave me cold inside. And I smell things, things a person should never have to smell. Then my mind lets go of hope and I want to scream so bad it feels like I'll just bust open if I don't. But I hold back, child. I hold back because God didn't intend some parts of our nature to be set free in this life."


From The Boox Review, 2001:

Ross’ short story collection spotlights human connections as its common thread, skillfully drawing readers in to the inner folds of its own seductive resonance, hitting home often with a focus on universal themes of joy, pain, sex and wonder, but delving deeper still with peeks into the darker hallways of obsession and solitude.

Ross, an award-winning author of over a hundred short stories, poems, essays and articles, turns to loneliness in his opener here, “Come Die in My Arms,” which features lead character Richard, who slips into his own dream world driven by an irresistible urge for companionship:
“I stare at her for an eternity. Even though I love her deeply and spend as much as a third of each day with her, I know Kari is not real. I am not mad. I have never accepted her as anything other than an intricate dream. Yet here she is, less than twenty feet away. This is not someone who resembles Kari. This is Kari – the eyes into which I’ve gazed for hours, the cheeks upon which I’ve laid my fingertips, the body against which I’ve curled in the ecstatic dance of life.”

“The Painting,” another favorite, has the Serlingesque touch of a Twilight Zone classic, and features a nude, painted in oils, empowered with the gift of seduction: “In the absence of reason he embraced her. In the absence of reason he lowered his lips to hers. But he clung to none of the differences between Elisa and her painted self. The shoulders were narrower, the breasts smaller than their renderings in oil. His fingertips stroked her belly, vaguely registered the absence of a C-section scar. His eyes found hers and saw no gold, could dive no deeper than the surface. However, in his urgency, her urgency, their urgency, none of that was important. Their union was the only reality.”

Male energies flow freely throughout much of Ross’ work, but he is a craftsman, able to achieve remarkable balance, and in deserve, therefore, of attention from all.