Stephen Dixon’s prose has a leveling effect, by which life appears with all its fussy, indiscriminate nature intact. Dialogue-heavy, it runs for pages with barely an indent. The narrative stuff sounds like the dialogue, which is fine, since it’s liable to drift into interior monologue or more dialogue before long. Time passes just as easily and perfunctorily, and drama appears incidental, deflated. This is true of Phone Rings, but maybe—finally—too much so.
Stu answers the phone to learn his retired brother Dan’s died in a freak accident, and we proceed by the episodic logic of grief through the months that follow, as Stu pushes around his memories of Dan (conversations about malfunctioning brakes, the demands of executing their mother’s estate). Stu mopes, feels the loss more exquisitely than the rest of the family. He debates going, under the guise of offering his condolences, to solicit sympathy from a neighbor whose brother has just died. Like many Dixon characters that are suffering, we’re not sure we like him. And that’s not the problem.
Where all things are equalized, the sense-making job comes with the risk of diminishing returns: Stu’s recollections are like unmanned lifeboats, carrying nothing but their own failed promise. Dixon’s wry humor and flinty lyricism have gone missing: “Dan died on a Sunday. There was a strong wind that day where he died. . . . Strong wind today; March, winds.” This passage is also one of the few times Dixon attempts to sort the reality he portrays. The artist’s role is always mediation, a balancing of material and effect, by which we judge. In Phone Rings, Dixon renders the scales obsolete. The result is less a fictional world than its exploded, irrecoverable remains.