REVIEW by Chris Moss

NWR Issue r36

The Moving of the Water

by David Lloyd

The arrival of Welsh immigrants in Utica, in central New York state, dates back to the tail end of the 1790s. Numbers swelled and, by the middle of the following century, the town was a major centre of Welsh culture and language. This is the milieu in which David Lloyd, a member of that community and an English professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse – sixty miles west of Utica – sets the seventeen short stories of The Moving of the Water. The sociocultural niche is further narrowed by the timeframe of the 1960s, when memories of two world wars were still fully alive and US forces were engaged on imperial missions in places, as Lloyd reminds us, most Americans had never heard of.

From the start, we are given to understand that the period was one of turmoil and dark forebodings, rage and revolt. Napalm-perfumed nightmares gave children sleepless nights, but they woke to rocknroll on the radio and girls in short dresses and boys in blue jeans and T-shirts who liked to drink Utica Club after high school.

The opener, ‘Nos Da’, is less a story than a vignette. Private Rich Bowen, felled by a mine in Vietnam, makes a series of nonsensical utterances as he breathes his last, his desperate comrades unable even to comprehend his bidding them ‘goodnight’. ‘Key’ (the next story), portrays the dead man’s father, Lewis, deacon of Bethseda Presbyterian church, rummaging through a box of household junk and ruminating on his family’s losses and his own sense of ‘dulled pain’. While a potential crisis slips into view, it is averted and ends on a note of indirection and indecision.

In the Sixties, Utica was home to elderly settlers who had been born in Wales, living alongside second and third-generation Welsh Americans. This gives Lloyd’s characters opportunities for melancholy reflection, but is also a source of tension. If Nam was the nemesis, Haight-Ashbury, and the ‘road going west’ – as a chirpy, cocky fifteen-year-old in ‘Crooked Pie’ tells a younger boy – was the redemptive fantasy of small-town youth everywhere, including Utica.

There’s a world out there, you know? People doing things you can’t talk about because you’ve never seen them. Things kids get into.

Back in Utica, adult life still largely revolves around church and family, gardening, bowling, parents talking about ‘where they came from’.

Surnames echo across the stories, which helps them gel into a sort of loose collage. But spectral characters also come and go, as if an air of unreality presses on the people of Utica. This is heightened in ‘Monkey’s Uncle’, in which religion, booze and family are mixed up in the tortured mind of Nye, recently let out of hospital following a breakdown. Lloyd’s narrator neither guides the reader to an understanding of the causes, nor provides a clear eye on Nye’s mad, muddied visions. The story ends with a relative asking him and his sot of an uncle to ‘talk some sense’; yet none is forthcoming.

The longest story, which gives the collection its enigmatic title, observes how Mrs Beven – born in Ffestiniog, widowed, ageing, conservative – struggles to accommodate the nest-making ambitions of her neighbours. She does’t want her patch of lawn intruded on by anyone else’s children. She doesn’t want the air at the back of her house poisoned by the whiff of anyone else’s compost. She doesn’t want birds or bees, vegetables or flowers. Above all, she doesn’t want Mr Wasilewski’s pond intruding on her private property. Part-fable, part-tragicomedy, ‘The Moving of the Water’ is, in the end, a sad tale of a small, once cohesive society being atomised into individual needs and desires.

Arglwydd, arwain trwy'r anialwch,’ she pleads, face lifted to the sky. Like the lame and the sick in John 5:3, she waits for the moving of the waters, as for a miracle. But are the waters to be stirred by an angel or are they merely troubled – a metaphor for earthly woes? The story ends with a gloomily apocalyptic, and unhinged, sense of a world nearing its end.

There is, across these stories, a pervasive sense of the past being eroded, of community life losing its tethers to traditions, customs, social niceties, to Wales of old. While the reader of The Moving of the Water is at times left wanting more in the shape of resolution, elucidation and exposition, David Lloyd captures a small world at a time of great change. The unease, weariness and bewilderment of Utica’s inhabitants is as evocatively rendered as are the town’s streets, bars, homes and chapel.

Chris Moss is a travel writer.


previous review: The Nightingale Silenced and Other Late Unpublished Writings
next review: Geiriau Diflanedig


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