AUGUST 4, 2018
THE FINAL PASSAGE of Joan Bauer’s Hope Was Here contains one of the finest analogies I’ve ever read. The eponymous protagonist, whose stepfather has just died, is working one of her last shifts in his diner before she heads off to college:
People say it’s so awful that I only had a real father for less than two years and then had to lose him. I wish like anything he was still here, but it’s like getting an extraordinary meal after you’ve been eating junk food for a long time. The taste just sweeps through your sensibilities, bringing all-out contentment, and the sheer goodness of it makes up for every bad meal you’ve ever had.
Hope Was Here was published in 2000, and since then I’ve searched, mostly in vain, for novels that washed away the taste of poorly written contemporary fiction that did nothing for my mind, even less for my soul. Not one, but two new exemplary short story collections have renewed my faith in American fiction. Sweet and Low by Nick White and Fight No More by Lydia Millet employ a seldom-used conceit: the stories revolve around a cast of characters, and each collection is devoted to a specific geographic locale. White’s incisive exploration of the South — you can practically hear the scrape of a wooden chair across a dusty floor, the rustles of swampy groves, the flies buzzing over a dead dog’s carcass — is beautifully tempered with sincerity and irony, while Millet, choosing present-day Los Angeles for her tightly woven trove of adults and teenagers slowly losing and finding their minds, breathes more life and texture into life into sun-baked Southern California than anything since Robert Altman’s Short Cuts.
A central shtick that alters the expectations of short stories can be a clever method for soliciting a reader’s respect; for example, the minimalism of Lydia Davis’s short stories netted her adulation and a Man Booker Prize. Melded narratives and characters is a tricky feint, but when done well it allows characters to blossom and expand the ways in which they relate to one another and the reader. In fairness to White’s and Millet’s work, neither collection demands that the reader sit down and trace the presence of each story’s DNA in the tale that follows. Both authors are aware, however, of the richness embodied by each of their characters, and if you do grab a pen, as I did, and map out how and where the people in their stories overlap, you’ll be rewarded.
While the first four stories in Sweet and Low do not partake in the central universe conceit, they do share one important, and fatal, story arc: knowledge is power, and more than a little knowledge has the power to unmake you. (“Bird-Headed Monster,” a taut and mordant tale in Fight No More, follows a similar path: a young woman is touring a house in Los Angeles when she learns that her wealthy boyfriend is buying it not for them, but for himself and his fiancée.) Rosemary is the widow of Dr. Arnie Greenlee, and in “The Lovers” she runs into a young man named Hank in an airport. He promptly faints due to low blood sugar — a result of his diabetes, which was first diagnosed by the late doctor, who had also begun an affair with Hank, and took the latter’s grandfather’s watch to be repaired. But Arnie died before the watch could be restored to its owner. Only the reader and Hank know about the affair; Rosemary only knows that her indifference in the bedroom following their only child’s birth helped her grant Arnie permission to have affairs. She does not, however, know about her husband’s fondness for male sexual partners. A meandering terror wraps itself up in White’s prose:
She drives on, thinking.
At the airport, he mumbled something about a watch. Her brain makes some connections. A month or so after Arnie’s death, she was in the bathroom cleaning out his cabinet. […] If she remembers correctly, initials had been carved into the back of it, but she couldn’t make them out, which frustrated her.
Home from following Hank, she retrieves the watch and holds it in the palm of her hand. It ticks. There are things in this world, she decides, you keep for no particular reason, the things you haven’t yet found a language for.
Arnie’s secret bisexuality isn’t nearly as much of a shock to the reader as the terse, oblique hypothesis about Rosemary’s dual nature, the same nature that happily permitted Arnie to have affairs without her needing to disclose that:
Say, just for conversation, there once lived a girl who was one person — one complete person, not a person for the world and a person for herself. They were one and the same. Then, let’s say, it’s her first week at college, and a boy she trusted, a boy from her hometown even, pushed his way inside her bottom-floor dorm room while her roommate was out. Say he did things to her that split her in two. Right down the middle. Years later, this same girl met a boy who was sweet and unassuming and never curious about the other girl behind the girl, the one she hid so fiercely.
Hank and Rosemary are two very different people bonded by a loss, but there’s just enough precarity in their incipient acquaintance that they lose sight of one another, and ultimately, must seek closure on their own. White has a profound talent, one writers decades senior to him frequently lack, for imbuing his prose with bombs of shock that land with ferocity and precision, leaving a devastation far greater than might be successful in longer stories and many novels. The reader may feel no pity for Pete in “Cottonmouth, Trapjaw, Water Moccasin” — he’d “run off his faggot of a son” many years ago — and that he’s trapped under his lawn mower after a fall, “one leg crushed under the back end” of the machine feels like karma for a bigot. There are, however, horrors in Pete’s own childhood that caused me to stop reading and draw a deep breath before I could continue. After Pete’s mother died, Pete’s father would take him snake hunting:
He was lucky being a boy — his sisters, after their mother died, had to deal with things much worse […] This usually happened late on summer weekends when his father was high on corn whiskey. His sisters slept in the room next to his, and on those nights, he could hear the terrible grunting coming through the walls.
That a snake slowly slithers into the crevasse in which Pete is pinned feels like the literal manifestation of his failure to defend his sisters and accept his son. He tries, in vain, to aim handfuls of soil at the snake, but it remains unmoved, “refusing to be anything but predator.” Dying is easy. Staring down near-certain death is much harder.
The title story — which also opens the latter two-thirds of the book, a section titled “The Exaggerations” that focuses mostly on the Culpepper family, emigrants from Illinois to and residents of an unnamed town in Mississippi — posits a simple but ambitious theme: our families influence, and often dictate, everything about us. Forney Culpepper’s father Reuben died of a heart attack — weak hearts run in the family — so his widow Felicia decides to give stardom a shot with her beautiful voice. When she prepares to audition for a talent scout in Memphis, a 10-year-old Forney finds himself at the helm of a quest for self-awareness:
The two of them — mother and son — gaze at the reflection of themselves wearing their new getups. Like different people, Forney thinks. Happier people. But is he happy? Or on the way to happiness? This singing stuff makes her happy, and he guesses he’s happy that she’s happy. But is he?
In the six stories that constitute most of Sweet and Low, the perils of being a writer are given attentive, and often hilarious, consideration. Buck Dickerson, Felicia’s music teacher and a sugar-addicted radio host, reveals to Forney that his son, a member of the Peace Corps, harbors literary ambitions: “My son says he wants to be a poet. Can you believe that? I didn’t know people decided to be poets. […] Thought it just happened to them, or something, like a car wreck.”
White unfolds the tales of Forney’s Aunt Mavis and Uncle Lucas with such care that reading about them is one of the purest abject pleasures in the book. Told in the first person, the story picks up once Forney lives full-time with his aunt and uncle, after his mother leaves for Nashville to pursue stardom full-time: “We were, for better or worse, a family. We had long dinners together […] we saw plays and ballets in Jackson […] took weekend vacations to Biloxi and Memphis and New Orleans.”
But for all their cultural excursions, the Culpepper family has its share of disappointments too:
In her younger days […] [Mavis] fancied herself something of a poet. She […] had plans of attending graduate school, but after graduation, my grandfather suddenly died, so she stayed behind to “see about things” for a while. Twenty years later and she was still seeing about things and remained single.
Nina the real estate agent is single too; she is our foyer into Fight No More. In “Libertines,” she is showing a house to a group of three men, one of whom, she thinks she was told by a colleague, is an African dictator. Millet has a knack for two specific, brilliant devices. First, infusing her prose with the part-confident, part-bored, part-ironic intonation of upper middle-class conversation in Los Angeles:
Had the person who lived in the house died?
Well yes, in fact, she’d wanted to say, because that’s the only way anyone ever leaves a house this stunning.
Second, trading from the beginning on the necessary maintenance of fact as fiction. Business cannot be conducted if apparent flaws are pointed out with loudspeakers and fluorescent flags:
This house always seemed to be waiting for the mudslide that would drag it down the cliff, snagging those giant, spiky plants as it fell. Chunks of frame and plaster would be dangling off plant stalks as beds and espresso makers tumbled down the hillside. Till that day came: 2.8 million, if you don’t mind.
“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” might be one of the best short stories I’ve read in the last 10 years. Millet dances between first and second person in the story, an interesting effort given the speaker is Jeremy, approximately age 16, who has decided to cut school and openly masturbate in his bedroom, knowing the real estate agent will be bringing a family on a tour through his house. For all his boorish antics, Jeremy’s internal musings are peppered with Latin, and he is concerned about his mother, who is reeling in the aftermath of the boy’s father leaving to start a family with a younger woman. Still, he celebrates when Marnie and the prospective buyers walk in on him during his orgasm, then rush out: “Murmurs outside the door. He felt a grin spreading. Reached for the Kleenex. There you go. Veni, vidi, vici. Julius Caesar shit.”
Later, Jeremy starts to roam the empty house. At his mother’s vanity, he does something he tends to avoid: he lets himself reach for a memory. Millet’s prose here is charmingly graceful, a turn from the obscenity-laced monologue from moments before:
He used to watch her put up her hair. Like in the movies: rich kids watched their mothers get ready. Good feeling. Dinner parties and evening wear. She’d been so deft with bobby pins it looked like sleight of hand. Magic, he called it then. He flashed to one time when her long hair, in the space of a few seconds, was transformed into a great shining round atop her head.
That shit looked elegant. Audrey Hepburn. “Magic mama.” She picked him up and twirled him. He’d been so small. Hard to believe.
Jeremy’s actions and their consequences create a breathtaking paradigm for Fight No More. One of the buyers, who sees right through his bullshit and tells him so, causes him to look back on his childhood, which in turn exposes a brief glimpse of his truth: there’s a difference between anger and hatred, and what he felt was anger at the “paterfamilias […] sowing his seed in younger soil.” The sardonic humor of the teen boy masturbating as a stunt is not forgotten, because Jeremy, in order to do something nice but not melodramatic for his mother, decides to use her credit card to fill the house with flowers. When his new stepmother — pregnant with his soon-to-be half-sibling — invites him to dinner, he is forced to examine the reality of his new existence. Being a teenager, Jeremy masks exploration of a new family dynamic as “a movie [that] could really crack you up,” but each step he takes as a new stepson, the child of a newly divorced couple, the grandson of a woman exhibiting signs of dementia, he reconsiders. Millet isn’t out to provide redemption, but she is interested in how people change when they finally come to terms with change. Jeremy remembers a cousin’s baptism he’d attended:
In the church she was dressed in a snow-white robe and smiled without end. She beamed. His whole life, he could swear, he’d never seen anyone look that happy.
Do you renounce Satan, the author and prince of sin?
“I renounce him,” he muttered under his breath […]
And all his works?
Jeremy wasn’t alone in his bedroom when Nina and her clients walked in. He was getting off to a cam girl named Lexie, living in Carpinteria, almost certainly underage. The small degree of respect he affords her — “She wasn’t dumb” — is important because, in “Stockholm,” the reader receives a visceral look inside Lexie’s mind. Her stepbrothers are meth dealers, her mother a drunk, and her stepfather has been raping her since she was 16. There is something astonishing, even electrifying, about Jeremy’s offer for her to come to Los Angeles and be au pair to his new stepsister; it energizes the book. Lexie’s other duty will be to keep an eye on Aleska, Jeremy’s paternal grandmother, a retired professor of the art and propaganda of fascism, who is selling her home to live in the guest house on her son’s property. “Jem” gives the new babysitter a quick rundown about Professor Korczak:
[D]on’t be fake Christian, she’s Jewish, well, kind of, but she was raised by some kind of missionaries so she’ll see through it. Tell her about your trashy family. I mean, don’t mention the Internet sex biz […] just try to be a straight-shooter. She won’t mind the white-trash part, as long as you’re smart and not rude. She likes an edge but she really doesn’t like rudeness. Treat her with respect, she’s had a hard life. Her whole family died in the Holocaust when she was six.
Aleska has experienced other losses too, namely her husband to suicide. It’s unclear when this happened — later in the book it’s hinted that Paul was still a child — but his widow does not dwell on what cannot be changed. In many ways, “Gram” is the hero of Fight No More. Her wry, self-possessed manner, her request for stiff cocktails in the evening, her general determination to keep track of her marbles before biology takes over and slowly sends them spinning off, one by one, into the darkness of senility, is nothing short of fearless. Some of the book’s best dollops of humor come from a woman whose framed posters of swastikas unnerve her new daughter-in-law.
Members of Lexie’s family, residents of Carpinteria, turn up in Los Angeles too. A content warning should be issued for “I Can’t Go On.” I don’t fault Millet or the publisher for not providing it, but anyone who has suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a relative/family friend should proceed with caution.
Both White and Millet are keen observers of the interpersonal expectations between people who are sure of themselves and people who aren’t. The chasm that separates fully functioning adulthood and reality is often invisible to characters in both books. “The Men” in Fight No More is a dizzyingly paranoid but mildly comic tale about a group of male midgets who are performing repairs on a house. Its resident, a production executive who “otherwise leads a normal life” but whose husband has left her, becomes unnerved “when the midgets grew into regular-sized men overnight.” Nina, the agent selling the house, wonders if she’s become “a magnet for eccentrics” in the aftermath of a lover’s death. The unnamed narrator of “Break” in Sweet and Low is befriended in college by a girl named Regan and her boyfriend, Forney Culpepper. The latter is by now an aspiring poet, but hasn’t written any poems yet. “Instead, he spent his mornings retyping the work of other poets — Ginsberg, Stevens — on a sky-blue IBM Correcting Selectric II […] When I asked him about it, he said, ‘I’ve not found the right words for me yet, so I’m using other people’s until then.’”
Very rarely in modern American literature is the reader afforded an opportunity to so fully absorb a character that it feels like he’s sitting right next to you. Forney Culpepper is such a creation. I understood his confusion when he glimpses Uncle Lucas kissing his best friend Buddy Cooper’s neck. I respected his reluctance to hear Aunt Mavis untangle the truth from the exaggerations, but appreciated his need for facts. I teared up for him during “The Curator,” White’s tour de force and the penultimate story in Sweet and Low. If you’re from a certain part of the South and you’re immersed in literature, at some point you have to contend with William Faulkner. His name doesn’t appear in White’s book, but we can safely guess that “the Author,” referred to only by that title and capital A, as the force manipulating lives in an unnamed Mississippi town where Forney lives as an adult, is a stand-in for Faulkner’s towering presence as the literary legend associated with the South.
I’ve lived in Los Angeles and I was partly raised in the South, so I appreciated the lack of myopia in both White and Millet’s prose. Both areas function as characters because everyone in “The Exaggerations” is stagnating, paralyzed by circumstance and expectations lowered over time. Aunt Mavis never went to graduate school; Uncle Lucas moved out, took a trip to Canada, died of a heart attack. Homosexuality — repressed, concealed, unidentified — is as common in the South as ostensibly cool and collected facades are in Los Angeles. The sun hangs heavy over both sets of stories, only the one in the Delta is intimidating, and bossy, and the one in Southern California is part of the glossy psychological veneer of the region. And both books end with the yearnings of elderly women.
Sweet and Low and Fight No More share a brutal lesson about human frailty: we are flawed because we want so much more than what we have. This want, this hunger — financial, sexual, physiological, emotional — turns into a blind spot, and often our Achilles’ heel. Attempting to meet that want can take a lifetime, and even then that feeling, the comforting realization that overtakes you as gently as a cotton sheet over your body on a summer night, that we’re sated and at peace, may never come. The only reassurances we’ll ever get are momentary. Fleeting precious seconds of calm and security. By the time we learn this, it’s too late.