Long ago, I took a workshop with a moderately well-known American poet. When we met in the student union for the half-hour conference I ’d paid extra for, he was visibly annoyed because he couldn’t smoke. For several minutes he shuffled silently through my poems, which were mostly slightly arcane explorations of living in a small Midwestern town and raising children, while I became more and more anxious. Finally he sniffed and said, “You know, not many people live this way.” I was young and he was old and somewhat famous, so I didn’t argue the point, though I ’d lived most of my life among people who did live that way, and still do. But the problem remains. Whose story, whose stories, are worthy of more general attention? Whose are merely marginal, singular, unimportant? What should writers spend their precious time recording, imagining, and discovering, and how should readers discern how to spend their equally precious time and attention? Exploring the books I’ll discuss here drew me back to such questions—partly because I found myself feeling a little the way that old poet did (and then mistrusting my own feeling) as I read some of these stories.
Even after reading all five books, and muddling around in them again as I drafted this review, I needed several days for the thought to crystallize: how stupid it is, thinking “not many people live that way” is a relevant critique of writing, even if it’s true. Writing—of fiction, poetry, drama, and essay, at least—is not about “many people,” whatever demographic groups its authors and subjects can be placed in. These books deal with gender, race, class, place, and all the other identities that pervade—and sometimes, it seems to me, overdetermine—contemporary discourse. But they are, beyond those identities, about particular people and the ways they live, think, feel, dream, talk, fight, coexist, love. If “not many people live this way” were the rule, I suppose we should all write about the citizens of China, India, or the many countries of Africa, where many, many people live, and not about the paltry few hundred million in our own somewhat fair country.
Even in crowded places, it’s surely a mistake to think we know how people live by merely observing. I’ve repeatedly discovered, after leaping to a quick conclusion about someone (often someone whose life seemed especially lucky), that I was entirely wrong, that the person carried some burden—an invisible physical ailment, a troubled child or children, misery in love—which showed not at all at first glance. Eventually, I learned to be at least a little more careful about making such judgments. Sometimes what resulted was schadenfreude, but more often it was somewhat embarrassed empathy.
With a wide range of styles, narrative strategies, and locations, these collections lead readers quite deeply into the lives of contemporary, mainly urban Americans, though one book concerns Americans in Morocco. Beyond the universal commonalities of fiction—love and trouble, for starters—other themes of the times emerge as well. The people we encounter are frequently underemployed, often in retail or restaurant work, and many if not most would not only be active on Facebook but define their relationship status as “It’s complicated.” Only a few children appear, though many of the characters reminisce or relive their childhoods.
Some of this is easy enough to explain: in an era when most Americans do live in urban areas, when both inequality and nontraditional family structures are at historically high levels, and when many are postponing marriage and children, fiction writers will naturally turn their attention to the particular challenges that accompany such phenomena. I don’t really buy Tolstoy’s famous claim that happy families all resemble each other, but it is surely easier to build a compelling story on misery and difficulty. Still, what I least enjoy in fictional strategies—a sort of desiccated minimalism, the bleak and flat presentation of miserable people behaving miserably—was mercifully hard to find in these texts. Instead I encountered a lively variety of approaches, all of which shared in varying degrees a commitment to psychological depth and linguistic innovation.
Five books—three of them inaugural volumes—are not a reliable sample, of course, and the demographics of this group do not balance perfectly. Four of the authors are women, one of those black; all of the five are, to my knowledge, cisgender. Yet as Ezra Pound suggested, points can define a periphery—and thereby allow us some observations about the cultural landscapes these stories inhabit as well as about the strategies their authors employ to maneuver, engage, and entertain us on our way through.
Venita Blackburn’s first collection of stories, Black Jesus and Other Superheroes, is written in a jazzy, elliptical, economical style; from the first paragraph it glitters and dazzles, sentence by sentence. Even when (as in the following passage) the characters and events seem relatively mundane, the rhythmic energy propels us and reveals unexpected depths:
After school I arrived at home, took off my shoes at the door, kissed the
8×10 photo of black Jesus in the hall, ate Froot Loops over the sink so Nana wouldn’t scream if I spilled milk on the carpet, and then watched tv. I used to watch this cartoon with beasts that turned to stone in the daytime and came alive at night. This was my ritual, my afternoon ceremony of duty, love, and magic.
In barely three pages, this story sketches with crafty, precise strokes the young but precocious narrator’s complex relationship with her Nana, who has suddenly arrived to live with the family, without “a suitcase or anything.” At first, the girl rebels against Nana’s strictures and willingness to enforce them with a hearty slap, and the divide is real: “Nana belongs to the generation of obedience as success and atonement as failure. I belong to the generation of choose your own adventure.” Yet as Nana becomes more frail and dependent, they reach a comic but genuine understanding. The story ends with the narrator creating her own versions of Nana’s favorite stories: “The crucifix hung from the chimney with care, and Santa’s reindeer stood on two hooves with hips jutted to the side in the universal manner of disbelief. Jingle your bells for me, baby; we are all angels.”
The image of black Jesus is also significant, in a cannily understated way. The narrator comments, “Kissing that photo meant kissing the best of all men because the best of all men is the one very carefully imagined.” Despite the racial awareness here, though, Blackburn’s stories notably avoid heavy political discourse or explicit treatment of the characters’ struggles as the product of discrimination. (Why doesn’t Nana have even a suitcase?) Like Zora Neale Hurston, Blackburn often features black characters who live in an obviously racist context, yet are not determined by or even especially preoccupied with that reality; they have other things to worry about. Their lives are troubled but not hopeless, and resilience and zest are often their most evident qualities. Even in the midst of violence and loss, a strange beauty reigns in the language, as is true for this final sentence from a story in which two people rob and kill Jonathan, who owns a modest jewelry shop: “Flowers ushered Jonathan to the altar where Eddie waited, an elevated place for union and sacrifice, a flat rock where the afternoon sun is gentle, and dogs refuse to bark.”
Many of these stories are brief enough to justify being called “flash fiction,” offering vivid, lyrical, and often exuberant explorations: of a life lived in a single day in “Ephemeros,” of sex changes in “Barbers,” of the subject named in the title of “Ways to Mourn an Asshole.” The last might be a prose poem in its eschewal of narrative for a series of brief imperatives, which build from “Cut your hair without a mirror” to “Put the ashes in glass containers” to “Pretend to come from greatness” to a final, urgent sequence: “Find your hunting rifle. Fire one shot. Miss. Fire again. Don’t miss. Remember not to care. Remember there are other jars left.” The emotional dynamics are clear enough, and the indirection is both ingenious and just scary enough.
I most treasure Blackburn’s stories for their inventive, unpredictable language, the turns of phrase and (sometimes) plot that reveal character even as they offer sheer linguistic pleasure. In this passage from “Annie Oakley Gun Training for Women” (worthwhile just for the title), the young narrator muses on age differences in the midst of a rather raucous party:
The thing about old people is that they see how fantastic a disappointment the world is turning out, and deep down inside they know it’s all their fault. This doesn’t make for a particularly regretful segment of the population. Somehow they become mischievous and crafty. I could imagine every one of them climbing trees and casting spells in moldy, scented forests, Douglas certainly, an incantation for every strip of pain recorded in his memory bank of tragic tales.
Other stories are more fully developed, among them the concluding “Run Away Screaming.” Much the longest and most conventionally developed of these pieces, it occupies twenty-five of the collection’s slender 155 pages. Featured are two young nursing students, Regina and Arlene, along with their perhaps-love-interests Duncan and Church. Regina has run up big gambling debts to Miss Honeysuckle, who also runs a brothel. As they all try to keep Regina from being forced into Miss Honeysuckle’s clutches things look desperate, with the action culminating in Regina leaping from a second-story window (and, strangely enough, losing her suitcase) and seeking shelter in the “death stench” of a dumpster. What would in some hands become a tragic tale of woe takes an astringent, welcome comic turn, however. The pursuers turn out to be Church and Arlene, come to rescue her in a gesture that is surprising, apt, funny, and symbolic all at once: “Arlene never saw anything so pitiful in her life. She wanted to pick Regina up and hug her forever, but Arlene couldn’t help her first instinct above all others. She laughed. Later she would laugh herself to a headache [and] then to tears, but now she and Church helped Regina out of the trash bin.”
The people who populate Jenn Scott’s Her Adult Life, another first book, are mostly white, relatively young, and trying to find their way forward in urban settings where rents are high, wages are low, steady work seems a nostalgic dream, and relationships are inevitably “complicated.” These are people who (like some of my former students and, occasionally, my children) might use “adulting” as a verbal, and lament its difficulty in great detail. I do not mean to mock; only the stupid among my Baby Boom generation make light of the challenges of establishing a stable adult life in post-recession, gig-economy America, even for many who grew up in relative privilege.
Scott’s stories often document those challenges. Her characters work and play and search for meaning in fast food restaurants, in small houses and apartments in crowded neighborhoods; money is both the least of their problems and the ground note of their discontents. The title story turns on an expensive knife that the protagonist, Kate, remembers buying on impulse and credit with her former lover (husband?) Michael. Kate is recovering from not one but two relationships gone sour, and both of her partners are dour and condescending in every interaction with her that we see. Kate herself seems barely able to function; in the key action that ends the story, she loses the knife while attempting to enter her neighbor’s house, which she mistakes for her own while crying over the breakup with her lover James. When the neighbor brings the knife back the next morning, Kate is preoccupied with her unkempt appearance (“terrifically not coifed”) and paralyzed:
“This belongs to you,” he said, and Kate knew that she was supposed to say something. She was supposed to utter something reasonable or logical, but she could not bring herself to speak. . . . Minutes passed. Or maybe they hadn’t been minutes at all but terrible, elongated, and exposed seconds that seemed to her an eternity, an entire dismal lifetime. . . . She ’d thought possibly she heard the intricate rattle of his brain as it registered the subtle and surprising, the disappointing, pieces of her.
The struggle of young women to find any sort of enduring relationship and claim any real agency often drives Scott’s stories. The few sympathetic men seem always to be attached to someone else, as in the complexly structured “Lessons in Geography.” Its hook involves a mail-order Russian bride named Elena, brought over by the middle-aged Joe, but the central character is the much-younger Claire, whose friendship and one-time affair with Joe are disrupted by the arrival of Elena’s alluring seventeen-year-old daughter, Marina. Claire’s long-time partner Marcus, who “frequently poked fun at the literal quality of Claire’s laugh” and owns only one pair of “adult-looking pants,” soon takes off with Marina. Claire’s anger (however justified) is transformed the next morning, when she finds Marina looking more vulnerable than sexy, with her fancy purple dress “rumpled and sitting skewed on her body like a poorly hung painting” and “a violet bruise the size of a thumbprint just beneath her collarbone, as if someone had pressed there, hoping to gain entry.” The story ends with Claire’s disquieting realization: “they had once been young enough to think people could spend the duration, the entirety, of their lives together. They ’d been young enough to believe it was possible, the faith to accomplish such a thing.”
Scott’s pacing is more patient than Blackburn’s, perhaps more subtle in its development. Scott’s sentences may be less jazzy, but she can also define characters and situations with a few deft lines, as in this one: “When I was nine, big uncle and small uncle took me in for good. They knew my mom before she loved other stuff more than me.” She draws poignant and memorable figures who often form unlikely and often temporary alliances against the loneliness and misery that constantly threaten to overwhelm them. In “Monsieur,” one of my favorites, a bumbling high-school French teacher connects in a real if quirky way with Belma, a friendless student. It was refreshing to read a story of this sort in which the older man turns out not to be a sexual predator, however common the alternative, and however emotionally needy and generally odd he is. Belma and Monsieur share food, conversation, and wine from a thermos, but their friendship is doomed by Belma’s well-meaning but conventional mother.
Scott’s stories often have commercial settings—restaurants and factories—and focus on the uneasy, oddly intimate relationships of working people who are thrown together largely by chance. Comedy and disaster jostle uneasily in “Paradiso nel Frigorifero,” whose protagonist gets her best advice from the vegetables in the walk-in cooler at the Italian restaurant where she waits tables. And the female protagonist of “American Silk,” a college student with a summer job at a textile factory, struggles to understand the complex history of her coworkers such as Rodney, whose machismo she immediately feels: “He was a man you ’d want to lug you somewhere with the hope of teaching you something, a man whose sweat you ’d consider tasting with a sensitive, darting tongue.” As it turns out, Rodney’s charms are mostly superficial: he has lost his driver’s license before the story’s action begins, and his wife leaves him and takes their children not long after. He squabbles constantly with their superior Deb, who just as constantly berates both Rodney and the narrator for unexplained production errors and proudly displays a photo of her own “thick-necked and broad-shouldered” husband with a deer he has just shot.
Rodney finally admits that he’s loved Deb since high school, then seizes the narrator and deals her “a possibly combustible kiss, as if he ’d dropped something inside my mouth and was searching furiously for it.” Yet no real, meaningful connection has been established: “An uncomfortable moment passed between us, and in an uncanny instant, we both craned our heads to the clock, barely visible from where we stood. We were unified, briefly, in the understanding that this exchange had taken only seconds; we ’d accomplished nothing, neither of us, in that passage of time.” Whether this pessimism about relations is Scott’s final position or not, her exploration of the difficulties is absorbing.
Margaret Benbow’s Boy into Panther is this review’s third debut offering, though a book of her poems has also seen print. These stories were written over a long time span—the earliest was published in 1985—though most are relatively recent. Despite a misleading back-cover comment putting Benbow’s stories in the company of Marquez and Toni Morrison, they belong more comfortably in the brisk, well-made mode of contemporary urban realism; their visionary moments are almost always psychological, not fantastic.
Often Catholic schools and churches are important elements of setting, as in the title story where the troubled Carlo Puovi, a refugee from “an incredibly isolated and primitive province in South America,” forms an unlikely bond with his classmate, the lovely Consolata. Craftily, Benbow describes the two through the lunches they bring to school: hers include “tender little sandwiches . . . innocent of crusts,” while he brings “a crushed and greasy bag, often foul-smelling from some unspeakable leak.” They find common ground and friendship despite their differences, but anything more seems impossible; while Consolata becomes the sort of woman the nuns hope will follow in their footsteps, Carlo is expelled from St. Rita’s “almost as a matter of course.” Sister Ursula, their stiff teacher, “couldn’t stand his caste and type”—but to be fair, Carlo keeps showing up drunk or high at the Friday dances, fighting, kicking at the priests. He is, it seems, as defined by his violence as Consolata is by her innocence, though after striking a final, strange blow at the church he carries her photo with him on his way out of town.
Many of these stories show a similar balance of sympathies among disparate characters, a resistance to assigning ready-made roles and a compassion that crosses gender and class boundaries, although often (realistically enough) it is the men who need to learn to treat the women in their lives with more respect. Two paired stories—one placed near the beginning of the book, the other near the end—illustrate this well. Both feature a painter named Simeon, whose beloved wife, Georgie, has recently died, and an eccentric woman named Johanna. In the first story, “Simeon Prophet,” the homeless, alcoholic Johanna more or less forces her way into Simeon’s home, hoping for liquor but willing to settle for food and a place on the sofa. Simeon paints her—as a sort of demon—as she sleeps, then realizes when he finishes that “the picture was the best he had done, the best he could ever do.” But when Simeon falls into exhausted sleep and Johanna awakens, she is not pleased:
Somewhere in the red death train of Johanna’s life, she must have had art instruction. No untaught person would have known how to destroy the picture as thoroughly as she did. She had used turpentine, soot, and had even rooted out the acid fixatives that Georgie used to preserve her vegetable dyes. Hardened glue stood thick everywhere on the picture except on the face of the Johanna demon, which squatted on the sepulchre. Here she had taken Simeon’s red Magic Marker, circled and slashed the face over and over, and scrawled above it in letters like oak trunks, NOT ME.
Simeon is understandably enraged—though we are led to notice his “artistic” appropriation of Johanna’s unfortunate situation, and to sympathize with her rage. Yet he follows Johanna into the snowy night, and finds her asleep in a snowdrift. Her first words are “I don’t look like in that picture!” and he agrees, then meekly follows her off to McDonald’s to buy her breakfast. The story ends with Simeon observing Johanna striding boldly, making “the whole snowscape jump. It came to Simeon that, from the back, and through his irises dazzled by sunlight, she looked not unlike some high queen.”
An even more striking series of reversals happens in the related story, “Simeon Prophet and Johanna,” which takes place not long afterward and again deals with the problem of the artist appropriating materials from people who may not approve. As the narrative opens, Simeon has been struggling to paint his dead wife, even slashing his palm to write words in blood on the back of the canvas, but he knows it is “no good”—though not why. In the park he finds “the woman-mountain Johanna,” still dressed in her gaudy red cloak, holding a baseball bat as protection against the threatening Satan’s Lords, a gang lurking in the park.
The gang beats and robs Simeon on his way home; then, managing to get back, he immediately begins a defiant painting of them as monsters and demons, but is interrupted when the gang’s most vicious member, Gulden, invades his house to do worse damage. In a marvelous set piece, Johanna comes to Simeon’s aid:
Johanna burst into the studio through the back door with red skirts whipping and her brawny arms raised high, an axe clenched in her fists, the enormous red cat screeching after her, and she laid that steel blade down like a judgment across Gulden’s fingers. Big flesh chunks popped off. Rings rolled away. Simeon gaped stupidly at the pieces. . . .
“You thought he had no friends?” Johanna shouted at Gulden above the sound he was making. “Is that what you thought?”
Even more unexpectedly, when the gang leader, Jason, enters the house he returns Simeon’s money, apologizes for Gulden’s actions, and remembers his mother’s appreciation of Simeon’s art class. He takes Gulden and the stumps of his fingers off to the emergency room, leaving Simeon and Johanna relieved and tearful—and readers like me dazzled and grateful for a sequence of surprising but believably executed human solidarity, and even a strange sort of grace.
The only story in Boy into Panther with traces of magical realism is “James Porter Hunts Mushrooms,” in which a betrayed husband finds an uncanny valley where all sorts of fungi grow, including peyote buttons. The titular character encounters a cougar that may symbolize his internal rage at his wife’s adultery, but that also is presented as a kind of deity and, finally, an adversary for James to overcome. A tour de force of its own sort, this story ends with an ambiguous yet powerful vision threatening to overwhelm the three men who come to search for James and find only a clearing full of broken limbs and bloody handprints: “Because even when they had reached the road, even when they were many miles from the clearing, it was as though they were flayed by a gaze. And this gaze did not just see them. It smothered their heads like a caul. It branded their necks with burning letters they could not interpret. It speared straight through them, with grimness and joy.”
What this “means,” exactly, still eludes me, as do exactly what has happened to James and the nature of his experience in the woods. My puzzling eased just enough when I thought of another great story of strange events in the forest, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” Like Hawthorne, Benbow knows that explaining just what “really happened,” at least in fiction, is sometimes less important and interesting than leaving us to confront the mysteries of human experience—especially under the pressure of betrayal—and to ponder the irremovable, irreducible marks those events leave upon us.
Two other notable recent collections illuminating the varied “ways people live” come from more established fiction writers. Despite the title and the Moroccan setting, Tony Ardizzone’s The Arab’s Ox mostly concerns Americans variously trying to make their way in a culture not only foreign but irreducibly strange to them. This gathering of fourteen interwoven stories, published in a new edition on the twenty-fifth anniversary of its first publication (as Larabi’s Ox: Stories of Morocco) is the closest to a “novel in stories” of the collections under review. (Ardizzone has also published several novels and story collections.) Here the focal characters are three unrelated westerners, each something more than a mere tourist. Their paths cross only glancingly, but they each encounter people, cities, and landscapes across Morocco, seeking insight into the country as well as fulfilment of their own various needs. The title story introduces the main characters, all of whom happen to be on a bus from the Casablanca airport that strikes an ox in the road, even as its narrative mainly progresses through the points of view of the bus driver and a local boy who sees the accident. Henry, whose cancer is terminal, is described unsparingly as “like a big Humpty Dumpty” whose “face is very pink and since the chemotherapy fairly hairless, and he is quite fat, particularly now that he no longer cares what or how much he eats.” Among those Henry notices is a young woman traveling by herself, whom he sees almost entirely in terms of her physical beauty and apparent nervousness: “A pretty American traveling by herself smokes a cigarette and fidgets, chewing her fingernails, pulling at the ends of her red hair, which is shoulder length and, though unwashed, breathtaking lovely. What a shame beauty like hers is wasted on boys in their twenties, he thinks.” And finally there is another American in brown tie and gold-rimmed sunglasses, “[l]ooking about like a cornered rat” and visibly sweating even in the air-conditioned bus.
In “The Beggars,” which immediately follows, we learn that the man in the brown tie is Peter Corvino, an unsuccessful academic who has drifted into administration. Convinced his research meant nothing, he burned it all in his back yard, and his wife left with their daughter not much later. He has come to negotiate an exchange program, but when he meets his potential new colleagues at the local university they keep their distance; he is urged to visit Fez, Marrakesh, Agadir, Tangier, Meknès, but no one offers to accompany him. Estranged and miserable, he is befriended by a cynical Frenchman who advises Corvino not to be a “weak” American and to learn to “handle these Arabs.” “It’s not like they are people,” Bernet explains. “Arabs stay poor because everything to them is insha’Allah. They think everything that happens is the will of Allah.”
Depressed by this advice, Corvino is ready to bolt for home, but on a morning walk he begins to notice the street life—a woman carrying bread dough to be baked, men selling single cigarettes and shoeshines, the glorious Grand Mosque. He stops to give coins to a woman begging with a young child, and suddenly thinks of his wife and daughter:
The images of Ellen and the Virgin and the Moroccan swirled in his mind, and for a clear second he held some part of the weight of the reality of the world’s poor women and their children, and in that moment Corvino felt himself in their place. It stirred something that had never been alive inside him.
He looked back at the darkly veiled woman, knowing that now he would be able to stay.
This modest, carefully calibrated epiphany is typical of Ardizzone’s approach; seldom do his characters make grand gestures, nor are they spared from our judgments or the narrator’s. Corvino remains adrift, and Henry remains fat.
In “The Unfinished Minaret” Henry takes center stage, viewing the local sights with a tour guide named Ahmed, a student who likes Americans even though they pay poorly. (Ahmed’s American references are given as James Dean, Stevie Wonder, Roy Rogers, and William “The Refrigerator” Perry, one minor way in which this collection shows its age.) Clueless about Islam, Henry offends a fundamentalist by peering into the sacred space of a mosque, and shortly afterward is assailed by the photographers who prey on tourists outside. Ahmed helps to fend off these minor threats, but is not prepared for Henry’s revelation that he is dying of cancer. Still, they become more than tourist and tour guide; after talking at length about dying and living, they share broth and snails bought from a street vendor in a moment of secular but genuine communion.
The next story, “In the Garden of the Djinn,” returns to the red-haired Sarah, who planned to come to Morocco with her boyfriend, Zach, inspired by the promise of excellent hashish and the writing of Anaïs Nin. But the shiftless Zach saves no money for the trip, and then betrays Sarah with another woman. In a finely crafted scene, Sarah and Zach drink wine and argue: “Sarah realized she was enjoying the fight as much as anything she ’d ever shared with him. . . . All at once she saw that the best thing they did together was compete.” When Zach calls her a “Barbie doll” and warns “they’ll eat you alive,” she determines to make the trip herself. He isn’t wrong about the challenges Sarah faces—as a woman traveling alone in Morocco a quarter-century ago, she has trouble even reserving a hotel room—but nevertheless she persists. Early on, she finds her way to a strange tomb with a pool full of eels, and when she leans over to feed them an uncanny, symbolic scene results:
Shocked, she dropped the egg into her reflection.
Her face shattered. The egg slipped beneath the water, hesitated, then broke surface, bobbing. The eels coiled darkly around it, baring their teeth. Sarah cried out as they bit. For several moments the eels twirled her between them, their blunt mouths biting her in turn. . . .
Without thinking she reached into the churning pool, fighting the frenzied things. . . . Finally she pulled what was left of the egg from the water. Blood beaded brightly on her fingers and wrist.
In the stories that follow, the trajectories of all three main characters reveal more about their particular journeys, but also about Moroccan culture. (Ardizzone did spend extended time in the country during the late 1980s; I cannot vouch for the accuracy of every detail or assess what may have changed recently, but his treatment of the culture seems responsible and sensitive.) We learn more about gender roles (quite rigid), history (we’re reminded of the many Arab and African contributions to science and general knowledge), religion (especially Islam), food, landscape, and much more.
Along the way, Peter shares a sumptuous meal and surprisingly intimate conversation about marriage and its discontents in the home of a Moroccan colleague and his spirited, opinionated wife. Sarah, frustrated by the assumption that a woman traveling alone must be a prostitute, unwittingly sets up a boy who solicits her for a terrible beating and arrest. She also meets a pair of expatriates and finds a guide and confidante in the woman of the couple, as well as an enticingly handsome Moroccan lover, but the affair is merely a part of her growing confidence: “She was Sarah Rosen . . . who ’d traveled to this edge of Africa and the Arab world in part because she wanted to and in part because people told her she couldn’t, and there was nothing she wanted to be unable to do.” Henry steps off the tourist path and into a near-fight in a local café while bonding with his guide and friend Ahmed. The cautious Peter steps out of his shell, learns to know a family of beggars, and even negotiates cleverly for the return of an expensive rug when it is confiscated by the authorities.
All three travelers discover, repeatedly, that the possibility of making real connections with people, not just having touristy encounters with buildings, landscapes, and food, is the most important thing Morocco can provide them. All three develop and grow in ways that feel quite profound in the unfolding of their stories, however banal this summary may sound. The keen balance Ardizzone achieves for these stories, between their settings—bound to seem “exotic” to American readers, and of considerable interest in themselves—and their patient exploration of developing relationships and self-knowledge, is their greatest strength.
Lee Upton’s Visitations, the third book of fiction from this veteran and versatile author (her other books include poetry and criticism), also includes stories featuring the struggles of urban millennials, but this collection ranges widely in both subject matter and style. Again, of course, there are love triangles—whoever noted that adultery is the main subject of the novel might have been talking about recent American short stories as well, apparently—but in Visitations an innovative style—often first-person—adds freshness and surprise. The book’s opening lines are written in the voice of a mother so distraught by an upcoming visit to her daughter that she speaks of herself in third person: “Tiffany’s mother is swearing at the flowers again. I am Tiffany’s mother. I am swearing at the flowers again.” This psychological distancing is only one of the many varieties of defamiliarization we encounter in Visitations. Several stories inhabit the realms of earlier fictions—Peter Pan, The Odyssey, Turn of the Screw, even Frost’s “Mending Wall,” inventing new stories around and behind those we know—and gods and goddesses make frequent appearances as well.
This approach may sound a tad ponderous, but Upton’s reckless, exuberant styles are anything but. The opening paragraph of “Visitation,” the story mentioned above, ends with this memorably un-motherly invective against the flowers, which have proven inadequate for the mother’s visit to her daughter:
Where are those flowers with their once-big beautiful fat-assed faces that I loved? Where? They’re lawn-smashed and needle-dicked. Blipped, beheaded, slashed into bug runways, pissy misfits, just a track of bloody collapses, some of them melted into the wet grass and others scattered like filthy dirt-bagged feathers.
Not every line in the book is this far over the top, of course. In fact, one of its greatest appeals is the sure-handed way it shifts among modes and incorporates multiple references. Upton’s characters are often bookish but never boringly so. Often they are thrown into literary realms themselves—for instance, the protagonist of “A Shadow” finds a bit of metal that casts him into the realm of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. This boy’s adventures with a demanding “shadow” are far from the colorful escapades of Barrie’s book, and by its end the story has nearly left the realm of narrative for disquieting meditation:
Long ago in another war the count was never exact: how many boys who once dug with teaspoons in gardens were lost in trenches.
So very much for a shadow not to know. Whatever was stolen from the poor was never determined—no one knew how much that was. Or that the greatest gift stolen from the rich was forgetfulness.
In “Gods and Goddesses in Art and Legend,” a woman named Alette returns to her childhood home, where she rediscovers not only the book named in the title but her childhood friend Kyra. Only after Alette has begun an affair with her new neighbor Paul, an artist who builds furniture out of second-hand books, does she learn that Kyra is pregnant with Paul’s child. With surprising gentleness, this story finds Alette stepping graciously out of Paul’s life, and Kyra not only making a new life with him but convincing him to paint watercolors. As she explains to Alette,
“He has so little faith in his own gifts, but I love these. At first you think they’re conventional, and then you see there’s something wistful about them and you can’t stop staring. Oh—and I’m trying to get him interested in lumber. Books do not make good furniture. He said you hated his furniture.”
“I never said that.”
“You didn’t need to.”
Alette realizes, finally, that she must change her own life, and Paul’s constructions become symbolic of her own situation: “Whatever it was, her life couldn’t be made only of books. Not only of books. Although partly of books, that was true.”
What makes these stories brilliant is not just their formidable knowledge and how lightly they bear it, not the ease and confidence of their narrative moves, not the shifting among genres from straight-ahead realism to arcane fantasy, not the wit and good humor. It is also the psychological acuity and the sudden, adeptly mixed metaphors that Upton musters (again, seemingly without effort). Demonstrating all of this clearly without elaborate summarizing of plots and characters would be difficult, but consider this from the strangely, grandly titled “Hello! I am Saying Hello! Because That Is What I Do When I Say Hello!,” whose protagonist is another anxious woman involved in a set of messy relationships:
William and Anita had become happy, satisfied people whose lives weren’t at all ruined. It was like they were both bullet-proof couch cushions. And I was this skinless human being who had not changed at all over the last five years but was just hanging there, like the shad the fishermen around here catch in the spring and dry out on boards in the sun.
Book lovers—and who else reads collections of literary short stories, anyway?—will revel in the depth and sophistication of Upton’s literary references. There’s not just Poe, but his claim that the death of a beautiful woman is “the most poetical topic in the world,” and Upton’s character’s canny reflection (which I have long suspected applies particularly to Poe’s famous essays) that “sometimes when we make proclamations we are only talking about ourselves in a roundabout way.”
After all the pyrotechnics, the final story in Visitations is the relatively straightforward but sweetly tuned and turned “Ambrosia,” in which an isolated woman becomes entangled with an aging neighbor who gradually reveals herself to be less crazy than she seems at first, becoming a steady visitor through a transparent ruse: “Always, she left something behind. A sweater, a coupon wallet, a biography of Teddy Roosevelt, a Waterford pen. She outwitted me, mainly by making requests that sent me out of the room so she could stash something undetected.” Like many of Upton’s first-person narrators, this one has a penchant for exuberant, revelatory explanations. She writes copy for online sales, she explains, “for nervous people. I was a nervous person. Consequently, I was good at my job. Anyway, who wasn’t nervous lately? . . . The side effects from the sleeping capsule you took could puncture your spleen and make you drive to South Carolina and vote.” And this is just the beginning of an extravagant, oddly engaging rant that occupies almost a full page.
Who among us hasn’t spent too much time worrying about crazy stuff we learn about on the internet? If we’re lucky, perhaps, we make a friend like Sylvia, who is vulnerable, annoyingly aggressive, and the provider of great help, all at once. And perhaps reading stories like these will remind us to be a little more open to such folk, a little less guarded about letting them into our lives.
The variety and vigor in all five of these books—their engagement with our moment, and their varied commitments to explore and exploit the resources of language, idiom, and narrative—give reason for optimism about the American short story. In a time when so much does not generate optimism, no reason for hope is to be dismissed or set aside. We live in many different ways, certainly, but threads of connection and possible understanding run through these books, and out into those who seek them out and offer them the attention they deserve.
*An essay-review of:
Black Jesus and Other Superheroes: Stories. By Venita Blackburn. Lincoln: University of
Nebraska Press, 2017. 168 pp. $17.95, paper.
Her Adult Life: Stories. By Jenn Scott. Cincinnati: Acre Books, 2017. 192 pp. $17.00, paper.
Boy into Panther and Other Stories. By Margaret Benbow. Moorhead, MN: New Rivers Press,
2017. 190 pp. $17.00, paper.
The Arab’s Ox: Stories of Morocco. By Tony Ardizzone. New York: Bordighera Press, 2018.
290 pp. $18.00, paper. First published 1992 by Milkweed Editions (Minneapolis, MN) as Larabi’s Ox.
Visitations: Stories. By Lee Upton. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2017. 240 pp.