Excerpts > Winter 2002

Jack Smith
review of All Weekend with the Lights On

For those acquainted with Mark Wisniewski’s novel, Confessions of a Polish Used Car Salesman, this collection of short fiction will have a definite ring of familiarity. It’s witty, it’s quirky, it’s decidedly outrageous.

Character, unquestionably a strong suit with Wisniewski, drives much of his fiction, and this collection represents an impressive range of character types: from baker to gambler to athlete to musician to novelist to grad student. This world is dominated by men, often single, in romantic relationships which are strained due to the usual conflicts of contemporary life, including infidelity, sexual incompatibility, a failure of trust--or perhaps just a desire for greener pastures. Women, in these stories, don’t come off too well: nymphomaniacs, whores, double dealers, abandoners, or—where male/female politics become even more clearly the subject of the fiction—educated feminists steeped in feminist critical theory. Avengers, nemeses even. In the face of all this, men submit, play the game, get defensive. Risky stuff. Not politically correct. Well, certainly not on the face of it, not even if one adds that such women are not weak-willed but strong, determined, and aggressive--which they are. Yet if a strong anti-feminist streak runs through the hearts of the male characters in these stories, men themselves don’t come off all that well either. If we are centered on the male point of view from story to story, we are also amused by men’s various weaknesses and shortcomings, and when it comes to their relationships with women, they are likely to be self-serving and obtuse. But this book isn’t meant to be a realistic, sociological study of gender issues, and it would be a mistake to read it as one. Put out by Leaping Dog Press, which bills itself as “Publishers of contemporary literature with bark and bite . . . ,” one might expect an infusion of the unusual—and with Wisniewski, the modus operandi is the bizarre: ideas and themes come out of a wrenching and distorting of reality, not a faithful adherence to it. And gender? Gender provides the ground for conflict for many of these stories, and it certainly does become a recurring theme in the collection. But on the whole, Wisniewki has bigger fish to fry.

As with Confessions, a darkly comic vision works its way through much of this collection, reminding us of the intricate levels of satire we find in satirists and debunkers like Terry Southern, Harry Crews, Jay McInerney, and T.C. Boyle. Life in America is a complex web of competing interests—over money, status, sex: the contemporary icons. All in all, it’s a rather hollow affair. The issue of empowerment may come down to a trade-off of needs—however aberrant these might be, and however compromising for the individual.

Wisniewski’s ribald wit conjures up the possibilities in “The Force of Pulchritude.” Here, a young white male novelist, failing to meet the demands of today’s slick commercial market--influenced as it is by feminist criticism--decides to collaborate with his wife on the right mix: right gender, right race, right conflict. They jointly crank out The Force of Pulchritude, a novel purportedly written by a black woman, chronicling the female protagonist’s history of sexual abuse by her uncle. They’ve got what it takes: “I knew Black dialect from playing basketball. N. knew abuse from her childhood.” Still, the rub in the collaborative project occurs when “the narrator’s beauty was supposed to empower her: N. couldn’t write about that.” But the narrator can. Contributing sixteen chapters to her three, the narrator completes the project, then line edits his wife’s work into Black English. When she sees the “slew” of corrections he’s made, she screams, weeps, and throws their cat Sisyphus at him for “changing her art.” In the midst of great domestic hostility, which has come to physical blows (against the narrator, that is, who figures he’s “standing in for the uncle”), the narrator uses racing winnings to mail out thirty-one copies to thirty-one agents—under N.’s name, “allowing racism to take its course.” And it’s a smash. Per their expectations, literary agents vigorously pursue them, hoping to cash in on an obvious winner. They ultimately sign with a top-of-the-line agent, having their “choice of publishing’s finest.” When the advance is made out to his wife for “fifty grand,” the fighting picks up again, and the narrator’s wife mixes physical brutality with sexual infidelity. The “sex went south” early on, but now “she began sleeping with a teenage neighbor who was confined to a wheelchair owing to an explosion at an Army Surplus store.” This kind of juxtaposition of detail, typical of Wisniewski’s sense of the absurd, prepares us for more off-beat developments. The narrator, now desperate—bruised (literally), deserted by his wife—tells his troubles to their neighbor, a bisexual chiropractor, whose office is right above their apartment. This man’s response? The young novelist soon is trying on thirty-nine pairs of Italian velvet pants, one by one, before the lustful eyes of the bisexual chiropractor, who’s ensconced in a closet, handing out pants (“no touching involved”), and the narrator’s soon out of there with the value of “at least $200 apiece at any vintage store in Manhattan.” Thirty-nine. Wasn’t that the number of stripes Jesus received? A provocative connection here, for in this story, the goods—the “two cardboard cartons” of the thirty-nine pairs of pants--reflect the failed young novelist’s second act of prostitution in a society in which he’s pretty well alienated. But in Manhattan, there’s a heypresto quality to the way the narrator forms a quick alliance with a black woman, a former literary lioness-turned-prostitute, and together they capitalize on an opportunity: confront the agent who handled the book, The Force of Pulchritude, with the truth about the real authorship, then threaten exposure of the fraud. They walk with $15,000, twelve percent to the prostitute (which includes sex any time the narrator wants it). What are we to believe here? The entrance to the commercial marketplace—well, at least the capitalist haul--may mean the right politics (gender, race) and prostituting one’s own talents at every turn; but street-smart blackmail—this will do, in a pinch, so that the New York publishing world becomes nearly indistinguishable from the underside of the culture, the seamy world of pimps and prostitutes. And what about those thirty-nine pairs of Italian velvet pants? One hundred bucks a piece from the prostitute—or thirty-nine hundred. One can’t help but believe there’s symbolism here. One can’t help but ponder and see an Eliot’s Wasteland brewing in this contemporary pursuit of the American Dream. Yet it’s the lively Wisniewski wit, humor, and rich vision of the bizarre that redeem this piece of social criticism from any charge of heavy-handedness; it’s delightful in the same way a story by T.C. Boyle is delightful—for its sheer outrageousness—no matter one’s politics.

Wisniewski’s most incisive cultural commentaries—and his darker ones--target college athletics. In “Pushing Ahead,” white college girls are ready sexual partners for athletes—black athletes especially. In this piece of experimental fiction (one long paragraph), the narrator, who was once a college athlete himself--and presently “managing retail”-- puzzles over what one should call females. Back in college, it was “girl,” not “woman.” In his retail business, he wants to be politically correct, but his young employees are all in high school (“girl” being the word of choice for them), and so maybe it’s not an issue, not at this time, anyway. The question can wait: “They can still learn the difference in college.” With this ironic line, the story closes. One could easily miss the point here: The story isn’t a piece of anti-feminist rhetoric; instead it uses the whole baggage of anti-feminist jock rhetoric to turn the academic system on its head. In this Catholic school, in Texas, what’s really going on, ironically, is everything but the Christian way. The things of Christ are sold off to the highest bidder; indeed, a rich Iranian who is able to “put off studying Christ for three years” donates six hundred thousand to the institution and has a dorm named after him, Al Ghatit Hall--the dorm where the narrator resided. “I’d spell Al Ghatit whenever I called Dominos.” With all this new funding, rooms get “refurnished” and “We all got these new modern phones.” Copulation and innovative sexual acts of various kinds are rampant, at every turn—and carried on deceitfully behind boyfriends’ backs, with phone calls to girlfriends’ dorm rooms being “pushed ahead” (call-forwarding) to jocks’ rooms, where girls answer while in the very act of sexual love. The narrator describes all this in his standard--we assume macho athlete’s—lingo, unflinching and coarse. If the narrator takes a moment now to ponder the appropriate word choice in his present line of business—“I’m thinking of holding a meeting”-- he’s after all a former jock himself (and still is?), and thus all he knows about “woman,” given his narrow range, is apparently what he’s seen of “girl.” Jocks rule; “girls” serve to please, to satisfy, to gain points themselves in a system dominated by male jocks, who are clearly favored by the institution itself. So what does this say about sports? About the state of education in America? About the state of society? One can’t help but see this Catholic school as a microcosm of a country that calls itself Christian but in reality is pragmatic and opportunistic. What epitomizes the American character, one might be led to conclude, is what has the clout to draw the crowd--namely the jock in a commercially slick culture. So where is the hope for “woman”—or is it “girl,” after all?--in a culture that counts prostituting one’s self as the order of the day, as the standard means to success, to the achievement of status?

“Double Bad” is perhaps the finest story in this collection. It’s a second story focusing on athletics in a Catholic college in Texas, undoubtedly the same institution, and one cannot help but read this collection intertextually. Here, a young co-ed, herself an athlete, given to nymphomania, decides, after a kind of turning point amounting to a recognition of her sexual addiction, to attend a faith healing. Her boyfriend, the story’s narrator, also an athlete, promises—simply to avoid argument--to show up himself. Though he comes to scoff, he remains to pray. He does, in some way, have a transforming experience. Not a spiritual one in the orthodox Roman Catholic sense, but a transformation nonetheless by a laying on of hands, by what’s been called in the charismatic movement, being slain in the spirit. His old past as an incessant sexual partner to this female nymphomaniac athlete, toward whom he has ambivalent feelings, is over; but perhaps a new life, once they renounce evil together, is possible--and “let her new sins determine your course.” Nothing is quite settled but one thing becomes abundantly clear: the favored status conferred on athletes, which leads to addictions of various kinds (sex, alcohol, general irresponsibility), is a real burden, not a blessing, and perhaps something is needed, after all—something paradoxically to free one from such a favored position. Being a day laborer is better, the narrator fondly recalls, from a time when he actually did do some bona fide work. A healing of some kind is in order, and one must not balk when given the opportunity. One must go forward—to discover some meaning, something in which to believe. It’s a story that integrates a number of issues into a complex whole, and there is a power quite noticeable in Wisniewski’s final healing scene, which is offered perhaps—by some stretch--for a society sick with its favored status, sick with its addictions—sick even of itself—but not quite knowing what to do, where to go. This healing experience—whether it takes or not--is a kind of start.

These stories often take us by surprise. A search for a girlfriend who has abandoned the narrator becomes a search for a solid, enduring moral principle—one as traditional as the use of 3x5 cards, in “3x5 Steve.” A baker’s search for a lost engagement ring becomes a search for the truth—for those who won’t hedge on it, in “Three-Quarters Stitched.” The search for the right sexual moves from a sex manual becomes a confrontation with self—and the inability to trust—in “Trust.” Wisniewski has a remarkable ability to let a narrative unfold loosely, naturally—and then come together; it all adds up. It unwinds like a spool of thread, as characters set out to explain a world often wacky, often puzzling—and yet one which often retains its sense of wonder, its capacity to inspire awe.

Jack Smith, North Central Missouri College

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