Other Voices Bookshelf

Appears in Other Voices #43

The Evil B.B. Chow by Steve Almond, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2005

I once read a blurb on a Mary Gaitskill book that called Gaitskill (one of my favorite writers), the “poetess of wounded eroticism,” adding, “quite frankly, no one can touch her.” This was, of course, before Steve Almond's My Life in Heavy Metal, which heralded Almond onto the scene as perhaps the male counterpart to what Gaitskill was doing in the 1990's—only at a time when, given the country's current moral climate, writing sex has fallen somewhat out of vogue. The thing about Almond, though, is that he doesn't write sex so much as he writes erotic connection—generally flawed and failed, but sometimes also madly, even earnestly romantic, in the best, most complicated ways. He is also a social commentator, in the tradition of Updike or Roth, who chronicles our American times while chronicling his characters' love lives.

After a brief hiatus of chronicling the obsessions of candy-eaters everywhere with his nonfiction book Candyfreak, Almond is back to doing what, in this reader's opinion, he does best: writing short stories about deeply-feeling but screwed up people who, as Almond puts it in one of Chow's strongest pieces, “Summer, As In Love,” desperately want “a major disruption” in the form of romance. Yet these men and women are often too weak and frightened to handle the disruption that inevitably results. (It's always notable that Almond writes almost as well from a female perspective as he does from a male one, though I'd venture to say his women are never quite as carried away by sheer desire as his men—are always half hedging their bets or “settling”—as though Almond can't quite convince himself that women dig men quite as much as they dig us.) Characters disappoint others, but primarily they disappoint themselves. It is not uncommon for Almond's stories to be told in a wistful tone of longing, from some undetermined point in the future when—like the narrator of “Summer, As in Love”—it appears clear that something precious was lost during the seemingly ordinary events of the unfolding story; something that has since remained elusive.

Herein lies the real strength of an Almond story. The ground covered is not itself inherently unusual, unique or luminous, but Almond is the most effective kind of romantic: the jaded, cynical kind who persists in his intense longing against all his own better judgment, and hence is able to weave true magic out of ordinary, profoundly human moments. There is something of Fitzgerald in the best Almond stories, by which I mean he is a writer unafraid to evoke beauty, even of mythical proportions and even when his characters are not glamorous Jazz Age tycoons but, mainly, ordinary working Joes or mildly self-important professors and students. Likewise Almond does not confine himself to love/sex as a medium, but explores the heartbreak and loss inherent in a variety of life's settings. He does male friendship particularly well. In “Larsen's novel,” a man struggles with his aversion to reading a friend's excessively long, probably bad novel, only to discover in the end that he envies the passion and faith it took for his friend to write a novel at all—to pursue something meaningful, which in itself precludes utter failure—the failure to try. In an era where so many male characters (think: anyone from the mind of Neil LaBute) suffer primarily from their own vast indifference— where lack of emotion itself is passed off as “conflict”—Almond is a radical of intense feeling. He should be required reading for every woman who fears man is an entirely foreign species…both because he deftly exposes male cruelties, especially the fickleness of desire, but mainly because his prime canvas is humanity, in all our universal struggle between selfishness and love.

The Evil B.B. Chow is not as wildly “sexy” or hip a collection as My Life in Heavy Metal. The stories, excepting the final piece, “Skull,” in which a woman with an artificial eye likes her lover to rub his penis into her eye socket, are less risqué and more varied in their terrain. One, “Lincoln, Arisen,” about a relationship between Fredrick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, is nothing short of freakily experimental, not the usual Almond vein, and while it is perhaps the most brilliant piece in the collection, it does stand out a bit like a sore thumb among all the “contemporary realism” that is generally the author's forte. However, for Almond's many fans, and to fans of short fiction in general, Chow, coming out in a climate where collections are increasingly scarce, increasingly pushed into the “novel in stories” form, and increasingly “chick-lit-ish” in concept, is an event to be celebrated. Almond is not only a poet of wounded eroticism, but of heartbreak, and quite simply, few short story writers today can touch him.

—reviewed by Gina Frangello

Stop That Girl by Elizabeth McKenzie, Random House, 2005

We have all felt at times, while growing up, the pull of independence while still trying to be the dutiful child, so it's easy early on to feel a kinship with Ann Ransom, the protagonist in Elizabeth McKenzie's Stop that Girl. McKenzie has imbued Ann with an earnestness reminiscent of a Judy Blume character (this in a good way) as she navigates the always confusing and sometimes painful path to adulthood. McKenzie has laid out this journey for us through nine stories that are filled with humor, strength and heart, while avoiding the pitfalls of sentimentality and cliché often found in coming-of-age tales.

Ann's world is peopled by a who's who of familial dysfunction, most notably her mother Helen, a manic-depressive who escapes the day-to-day by shutting herself away in the “cave” of her bedroom and contributes to Ann's somewhat nomadic existence by imposing unwanted trips. Helen, due to her inability to withstand nuisance neighbors or a tree-blocked view, prompts numerous moves. Also on the scene is an eccentric and competitive grandmother who in one story attempts to kidnap Ann and who is called by a range of endearments from the formal Dr. Frost to the insisted-upon “Mumsy”.

In the first story “Stop that Girl,” Ann is sent off to Europe with a grandmother she barely knows so that her newly married mother and stepfather can welcome their newborn daughter unencumbered by Ann's presence. What follows are deftly crafted vignettes that serve as milestones in Ann's quest for her own individuality, while she continues to try to play her role in the family. This is most evident in “S.O.S.” where Ann, now in college and working on a literary magazine, finds out her grandmother is coming to see her the same night she has the opportunity to meet beat-poet Allen Ginsberg. The evening that unfolds, as Ann attempts to pawn off “Mumsy” on her roommate while she goes to meet Ginsberg, is both heartbreaking and hilarious. The tone of “S.O.S.” is set when Ann's mother, upon hearing of the impending visit, reveals to Ann: “I'm frightened of her—I still have nightmares about her. It's impossible to convey the horror she inspires in me. I think she may have tried to strangle me when I was a baby.” As Ann's story concludes with “Last of Our Tribe,” we find her a single mother whose world is not quite as she thought it would be, but who has come to feel a hard-won happiness with her life nonetheless.

McKenzie possesses the wonderful ability to evoke such feelings as youthful insecurity and familial disillusionment while tempering them with generous wit and a keen sense of the absurd. It is this ability that carries us through these stories, which resonate within long after their conclusion.

—reviewed by Kathryn Kosmeja

Many Ways to Get It, Many Ways to Say It by Cris Mazza, Chiasmus Press, 2005

Throughout her prolific career as a prose stylist, Cris Mazza has made a specialty of gloves-off fiction and nonfiction. She writes of oppression, obsession, economic dire straits and sexual politics with a fierce eye trained on the rough and raw bottom line. Keeping on keeping on, in Mazza’s fictional universe, is a response of almost heroic proportion; an under-applauded act of nobility. There are no easy answers or quick fixes. But, in her latest novel, there is the recognition of a kindred being.

Loralee (AKA Laurie, LeeAnn, Lora) has had her rough knocks pre-twenty and the situation hardly improves when she marries loafer Dale, sporadic musician, fast-food employee, and very occasional lover. Loralee drives a school bus and, on the side, poses for photographers for the cash and the buzz:

She still shaved her crotch and realized that Dale didn’t even know she did. Standing in the shower, she held herself like she was a little kid who had to go to the bathroom, then let her middle finger go inside, but nothing happened. Not surprising. Someone else doing the touching, and how badly he wanted to—that’s what did it.

Given what her present contains and her future promises, there’s ample incentive for Loralee to steer that bus into a ravine. But, like other Mazza heroines, Loralee hangs in there and, when something resembling opportunity presents itself, exploits the possibilities. This is part of what makes the adventures of Loralee such compelling reading. (There are also the dangers and risks inherent in a tiny woman/freelance extortionist posing nude for and having sex with larger strangers and staying put until she’s been paid for services rendered.) And here’s the knock to the heart: before Loralee takes off for her extracurriculars, she leaves oblivious Dale with a Heat-n-Eat stuffed chicken breast and warming instructions. Another author might use that kind of detail to convey contempt. In Mazza’s description, the gesture comes across touching: the more capable mate looking out for, protecting, the fuck up.

A dual narrative, Many Ways begins with Loralee’s life and times, 1970-1984. The second section flashes forward to 1995 and introduces Clay, who, like Dale, also qualifies as a “kept” husband, but on a much grander scale. Clay’s wife, Val, is a rich, horny physician and Clay her man toy. He is also a secret photographer. Also a teacher. And in an extraordinarily ill-conceived move, he organizes a west to east coast summer educational tour for his teenaged students—rich, horny wife in tow. Loralee, now shed of Dale, has been hired to drive the bus. On the road, she continues to pick up men for sex and profit but refuses to sleep with Clay, leaving Clay, long used to being the object of desire, in the unaccustomed role of desirer. Without giving too much away, let’s say the situation gets tense before it gets ugly and uglier still before Mazza offers a ray of hope: Loralee and Clay understand each other. They might just have a chance together. But there remains destruction in their wake and psychic wounds carried forward that may or may not conspire to detonate their connection too. Many Ways doesn’t end fairy-tale happy. It ends with two damaged people, keeping on keeping on.

—reviewed by Kat Mead

The Logic of a Rose by Billy Lombardo, BkMk Press, 2005.

The Chicago stories in Billy Lombardo's first collection, The Logic of a Rose, take place in an Italian enclave located in the middle of the Irish Bridgeport neighborhood. The winner of the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize, these stories evoke a specific 1970s Chicago: bottle caps with cork, Fahey Flynn in his bowtie, neverending summer softball games and the lush tomato plants and fruit trees grown between the garage and the patio. Most of the stories focus on Petey Bellapani and follow his poignant struggles from eight years old to early teens as the Bellapani family reestablishes itself after a fire burns down their apartment and everything in it. Because of the focus on Petey throughout, the collection has a coming-of-age, novel-in-stories cohesiveness, broken only by the last story, “The Thing about Swing,” a sweet laundry room love story that doesn't apologize for its predictable sweetness.

Lombardo's prose celebrates the mystery of little things in the city that escape our attention because we pass them everyday. In “Nickels” there's the words “Fuck you Mary Nelson 1970” that Petey cannot stop Gus from scratching into the wet cement and the cigarette butt that gets buried in the newly poured sidewalk: “Staring at the cement, I was certain there were cigarette butts buried everywhere in the city. I thought of the weeds that grew from the cracks of the old cement, too, and I imagined them waiting there for a crack to appear. I imagined a world of unwanted things—sandwich wrappers, soda cans, chicken bones, and bottle caps—living just beneath the sidewalks of Bridgeport.”

The Chicago Lombardo portrays is dangerous—fires, rain storms, falling cinder blocks and thirteen year old boys who call each other “Mary.” There are random acts of racial violence where bored boys slam bus windows down on the arms of black men just to amuse themselves on hot summer days. And there are girls who can paralyze with a look or a nervous silence. But there are unexpected heroes in Lombardo's stories as well: a burn-out punk who risks his own safety to get Petey's family out of the fire, the neighbors who open their small apartment to the Bellapanis, the neighborhood children who harvest cherries from a beloved fallen tree and Kenny Metke who caught more Clinchers than anyone else in softball history.

This is a particularly male book, and the relationship between Petey and his father drives many of the stories. Joe Bellapani is always there with a lesson for Petey to help make sense of the world, usually in between working several jobs. He is the kind of father who instructs on the finer techniques of dry-mopping, lectures on a song lyric in “My Way,” saves a statue of the Virgin Mary from fire and comforts a neighbor with soft Italian words. When Petey rebels in the collection's title story, Lombardo eloquently mythologizes the boys of Bridgeport: “Exactly how it happened, Petey couldn't be sure. But something came by the corner of Thirty-second and Wallace Streets when only boys, the last of the boys in Bridgeport were there. It swooped in like a villain in a big green Chevy, and slammed its brakes at the corner, squealing its tires and spraying open its doors. It jumped out with a baseball bat turned cudgel, and ransacked boyhood like it was a lemonade stand.”

Lombardo's The Logic of the Rose is a beautiful addition to the neighborhood fictions of Chicago where class and ethnicity always clash on the vacant lots and street corners filled with the music of Billy Joel and the smell of fresh bread and cigarettes.

—reviewed by JoAnne Ruvoli

How to Fall by Edith Pearlman, Sarabande Books, 2005.

The groups of eccentric suburbanites in Edith Pearlman’s latest short story collection are so full of surprises, you never know what to expect. The stories in How to Fall, winner of the 2003 Mary McCarthy Prize, span four countries but mostly take place in the fictional town of Godolphin, Massachusetts, and focus on the strange inner lives of seemingly ordinary women who often have gone unnoticed until the moment each story takes place.

Pearlman plays around with the characters in this collection, forces them through an array of diverse circumstances, from which they return either rejuvenated or depleted. The story “Eyesore” deals with the dangers of newfound vanity, when Franny, a local newspaper writer, discovers contact lenses. After admiring her glasses-free reflection, Franny becomes obsessed with physical improvement. “And now things happened fast. The world of low-fat diets and high-impact workouts was waiting to claim her. Who could be blamed for wanting the whole kaboodle?” Franny continues indulging in the superficial until she deliriously, and fatally, tries surgical tattooing.

In these carefully crafted stories, Pearlman's characters display remarkable bouts of ambition and curiosity as they explore new facets of the world, whether overseas helping refugee children in the story “If Love Were All,” or at home studying other people's children in “Rules.” In most cases, the characters are found in disorienting circumstances that force them to examine what they are truly made of.

In one of the strongest stories of the collection, “Signs of Life,” a woman dies then comes back to the life of celebrity an hour later. Her remarkable recovery brings tourists and business to Godolphin, placing her in a position where she must choose between a life of notoriety or anonymity. “Signs of Life” reveals the quiet heart of a long-term relationship, giving the main characters a chance to rediscover their love in the oddest of circumstances.

Pearlman's use of description is where these stories truly shine. She displays the gift of balancing the absurd with the delicate. Each story is conveyed with a keen sense of humor and sprinkled with unique nuances that make the situations these characters endure memorable. For instance in “Shenanigans,” Pearlman writes, “Devlin's mother twinkled at her son like an entire constellation. Other people's parents descended sorrowfully into Alzheimer's; his was turning into a leprechaun.”

These stories highlight the intense bonds that exist in relationships between women. After the deaths of husbands and the unreliable nature of boyfriends, the characters often find a surprising sense of strength and understanding within the connection they form with female friends.

The collection How to Fall is told with a sense of urgency; a spring in its step. Pearlman studies her characters with precision, reveals their quirks with casual ease, and draws the reader into a world that is as exciting as it is life altering.

—reviewed by Tina Spielman

All This Heavenly Glory by Elizabeth Crane, Little, Brown, 2005.

Trying to find the perfect job, the perfect boyfriend, the perfect outfit to wear in junior high, and to avoid some possibly disastrous mistakes in between are just some of Charlotte Anne Byers' struggles in Elizabeth Crane's second collection of linked short stories, All This Heavenly Glory. From ages six to forty, Crane chronicles Charlotte Anne's life as she experiences the ever-tumultuous worlds of adolescence and adulthood. In these stories, which are as funny as they are touching, Charlotte Anne drinks too much, ends up in the arms of wrong men, finds the man she will marry and says goodbye to her dying mother. From each rambling story to the next, Crane analyzes and scrutinizes the details of Charlotte Anne's life using stylistic devices familiar to readers of David Foster Wallace and Rick Moody. She invokes a playful grammatical structure that tells each story in a uniquely winding manner, tangentially linking each event to another while using an impressive array of lists and parenthetical asides. Though there isn't a central plot or narrative structure, there is a cyclical arc tying these stories together.

The first story in the collection, written in a single sentence spanning seven pages, is a personal ad describing the adult Charlotte Anne: “SWF, above average on a really good day, on a bad day still fairly cute but you might want to mention that her hair doesn't look too big before she has to ask…”

In “Urchin #2” we are introduced to an eight-year-old and uniquely cosmopolitan Charlotte Anne taking the New York City bus to opera rehearsals where her biggest problem is shedding her southern accent and finding a proper place to put her thin mint.

Charlotte Anne carefully scrutinizes the phone calls (and lack thereof) of a man she's considering dating and throughout the collection dodges a handful of sleazy characters like her best friend's inappropriate father and a could-be pornographic filmmaker who wants her to appear in his movie. All of these experiences pay off by the end of the collection where Charlotte, now a semi-neurotic yet compelling, relatable woman, finds a man who may just be the one.

Though these stories take Charlotte Anne through bouts of depression, hopelessness, fear and anger, they never lose sight of their humor. Crane's stories are not your usual coming-of-age stories. They are fresh, tough and moving, and while reading this collection, one thing becomes extremely clear: Crane is a writer capable of doing that rare thing in fiction, making her stories jump off the page and into your heart.

—reviewed by Tina Spielman