Interminable Hurt: On Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s “American Estrangement”

August 10, 2021   •   By Elaine Margolin

American Estrangement

Saïd Sayrafiezadeh

SAÏD SAYRAFIEZADEH, whose Iranian father deserted him when he was nine months old, claims that “[s]omeone who has disappeared from your life once can disappear twice.” For Sayrafiezadeh, paternal loss is the gaping wound that refuses to heal and the bedrock upon which much of his mesmerizing fiction rests.

It’s not that there weren’t other serious hurts in his life; there were many. His Jewish mother’s repeated depressions and zealousness for the Socialist Workers Party often left him feeling lonely and neglected as a little boy. There was also the time he was left with one of his mother’s acquaintances, who sexually abused him. In his early 20s, a flurry of relationships ignited quickly and detonated just as fast, leaving him scared he would be unable to find a life partner — that is, until he found Karen, a nice girl from New Jersey, who seemed to get what the others couldn’t. There was a dreamed-about acting career that never materialized. But nothing seems to have cut him so deeply as his father’s abandonment. He felt stuck inside an interminable hurt, until marriage and therapy and writing freed him. Sayrafiezadeh received accolades for When Skateboards Will Be Free: A Memoir of a Political Childhood (2009), a book one senses he wrote as a smoke signal of sorts to his estranged father, whom he still longed to know and love. But it was not to be: his father stopped taking his phone calls after the book’s release, mortified by the intimacy of his son’s revelations.

The stories in Sayrafiezadeh’s stellar new collection, American Estrangement (2021), all seem in some ways like alternative versions of his past self: lost men trying to cross barriers that feel closed off to them. He writes in a scathing first-person voice that astounds you with its immediacy and perceptiveness, about unhappy people who are worn down, exhausted, and drained by an America that has lost its promise. His characters are all haunted by some kind of trauma — sometimes remembered, sometimes not — and he treats their woundedness with a poetic tenderness. He lets us see how alone they are, and how easily they fall between the cracks. He describes with dead-on precision the brutality of their workdays in mind-numbing jobs that pay little. We feel the author’s hovering presence throughout, his understanding of their helplessness — the kind that can paralyze someone into long stints of hiding in godforsaken places, as if they are punishing themselves for crimes they haven’t committed. Despite Sayrafiezadeh’s great success as a writer, teacher, and husband, we sense that there is still a part of him, at 52, that remains lost, and this lostness is reflected back to us in his stories.

“Audition,” for example, takes us into the bleak world of a young man whose life dreams seem to be evaporating into dust. He thought he would go to college but instead is working for his father at a construction site in Moonlight Heights, where they are building a new subdivision. He once dreamed of being an actor but that seems farcical now. His co-workers don’t know he is the boss’s son since his father has forbidden him to tell them, explaining that he wants the narrator to experience what it feels like to work your way up the way he himself did. But this just feels like more of the same frosty sadism his father has doled out to him his entire life. Though he is young and strong, exhaustion overtakes him throughout the day, and he doesn’t know why. He is uncomfortable with his fellow workers, whose problems are “immediate, distinct, and resolvable; mine were long-term, existential, and impossible. When I spoke, I tried to approximate the speech patterns of my co-workers — the softened consonants and the dropped articles — lest I reveal myself for the outsider I was.” One night, he gets high on cocaine with one of the guys, and he is surprised that the pain he always carries with him is still present but transformed somehow. The drug loosens him up enough to start talking to his new buddy, but the guy is too stoned and can’t really listen to a thing he says.

We meet an older version of the same sort of man in “Expedition.” He has been with his girlfriend for five years, and things have never really been good. He concedes that there is something ailing in their relationship, but

[w]hat is it precisely, no one has been able to determine, not even the couples’ counselor whom we went to see, one hundred dollars out-of-network, with Lizzy and me sitting side by side on the couch trying to account for the lack of delight and merriment in our lives. We blamed ourselves, we blamed our parents, mainly we blamed each other. After a year of no improvement or discovery in either direction, we were told by the couples’ counselor, “I am willing to keep seeing you, but I’m not sure what would be gained.”

Nonetheless, he and Lizzy embark on a road trip that he hopes will remedy things. But the car is filled with the same tensions that envelop them at home. She criticizes him constantly. He has trouble telling her what’s on his mind. But he reminds himself that, before he began seeing Lizzy, he didn’t do yoga or drink green tea or think about the world seriously, as she does. All he wants now is to feel loved, but with Lizzy he doesn’t. He flirts with the idea of telling her what’s on his mind but stops himself because he is too afraid of what might happen. After another aching night in a hotel, he feels his senses numbed as “the unrelenting dullness of the country sets in, the crushing loss of distinction, the absolute homogeneity, the strait line of asphalt…” Sayrafiezadeh is a master at capturing the fear and self-loathing that paralyze those who feel unworthy of being cared for.

In “Last Meal at Whole Foods,” a young man sits with his dying mother thinking how beautiful she still is. But he is sickened by the reality that “[t]he march towards finiteness has begun.” He wants to stop it. But how? There is so much more he needs to know about her and what happened to them both, but to ask her questions now would be to deny the overwhelming power of her illness. He and his mother seemed always to be on the cusp of finding a way to work things out, but somehow never got there. “For most of my childhood,” he writes,

there was always something more we wanted, something more we were just about to get, something that was going to turn our situation around once and for all. It was vague and indefinable, this thing, hovering nearby in the air. I had relied on my mother to get us that thing, but there was only so much she could do, and now we have 3 months left to do it.

He remembers their bouts of Scrabble when he was a young boy and how she would always trounce him. He was so angry back then, like he is now. In this story, Sayrafiezadeh captures the crippling vulnerability of realizing that your mother is going to die and that there will be no time for forgiveness or healing, that your dreams of closure have been pulverized.

In another story, “A, S, D, F,” we meet a young man who works as a receptionist at a museum in Aspen that displays the large paintings of an abstract expressionist of some renown. When the man leaves work, he finds his vision off-kilter and realizes that he is

seeing everything through the prism of the abstract expressionist’s paintbrush, the stores, the streets, the signs, each object disassembled to its component part of color or form, even the smiling faces of the strangers who pass by me, white, white, white, and underneath it all is the soundtrack of the continuous clacking of typewriter keys.

He stops at a bookstore to center himself, is drawn to a novel about a man who was abused as a boy, and suddenly feels queasy. There is a blurry memory of a cold winter day and a strange man touching him, but that is all he has access to. A pretty girl catches his eye; when he sees her again, she will be kissing him passionately and telling him about her love for Monet. Sayrafiezadeh’s narrative skill is on full display in this moving tale that shows how many of us walk through the world blind to the forces that have already toppled us.

In the final story, “A Beginner’s Guide to Estrangement,” the protagonist waits in an airport in Istanbul for the father he hasn’t seen in 15 years. Raised in Upstate New York by his mother and stepdad, he was 20 when he met his father in Buffalo for a brief lunch date at an Iranian restaurant. He spent a few hours listening to the man babble on about his work as an engineer, and then they talked politics and whatnot. He remembers waiting for the conversation to turn serious — waiting for him to ask about his mother, waiting for him to explain why he left him. But all they did was eat while his father kept talking about inconsequential things, pausing crudely at times to watch the waitress as she walked away from their table. Now 35, the man is waiting once again for his father in the Istanbul airport, far away from home, and wondering why he is there in the first place.

Sayrafiezadeh has claimed that writing is difficult for him, and it is apparent, judging by the stories in this collection, that he pulls from the deepest parts of his wounded psyche for inspiration. His prose has a rhythm that is startlingly original and an intense quirkiness that catches you unaware. But I had the sense that this extremely talented author is holding back somewhat, rehashing already mined material. It feels as if he is stuck at a crossroads of sorts and needs a push, like many of his characters, out of his comfort zone and into new territory where his imagination can soar.


Elaine Margolin is a book critic whose work has appeared in many venues, including The Washington Post, The Jerusalem Post, The Denver Post, and San Francisco Chronicle, as well as many literary journals. She lives in Hewlett, New York.