The Love That Loves to Love
The ghost of a severed foot narrates a story in Stacey Richter's debut collection My Date With Satan (Scribner). Haunting a dive bar with other ghastly creatures, including a hand that repeatedly grasps at the air, the foot describes how it will sidle up to any old leg: It longs to be part of something whole again. The same could be said about many of Richter's characters, as well as those of Julia Slavin and Amanda Davis. In their surreal and ironic debuts, these three authors skillfully evoke what it's like to want and long for something, be it a joint, a body, or simply a real connection with another person.
Richter has a keen sixth sense about human unions, yet she lets her characters reveal this to you through their eyes and in their own time. As in Robert Olen Butler's Tabloid Dreams, literary ventriloquism of a high order propels the stories of My Date With Satan. Richter animates the people normally thought of as creeps--teenagers, Satanically obsessed rockers, and a drug-abusing schoolteacher--eking pathos from their feverish confessions. There's the overindulged teenage girl in "The Beauty Treatment" whose wannabe-homegirl friend "sliced a gill into [her] cheek for no apparent reason." When a therapist asks her to confront her friend, the wounded teen's resolve melts and she must also confront herself. In "Goal 666," a rocker questions the validity of a new synth-playing band member who charms his leader away from the dark side. Yet in the end, her siren song melts his hard kernel of inner hatred: "I was overwhelmed by an urge to grab her hand and skip off into one of those red, dripping sunsets they have on seventies greeting cards."
Throughout, Richter's off-kilter narrators find a sad inner softness, revealing their vulnerability in the face of the love that they cynically mock. In "A Prodigy of Longing," an 11-year-old boy more interested in Kierkegaard than Hot Wheels finds salvation from his father's wacky second wife ("that bleached and teased powerhouse of hotel management") in a beautiful boy next door. Such displacement makes him, as the title suggests, a prodigy of longing, as he experiences what the philosopher described as the "misery inherent in hope--the desperation of one who perpetually longs for an imagined future." And in the collection's title story, a chat-room dominatrix called PipiLngstck recounts the story of her date with a slave named Satan whom she meets online. Their encounter begins well at a Sanrio store, but goes downhill when they get to Satan's bedroom ("It was all decked out with Star Trek posters, shelves of William Gibson and Anne Rice books, a slick computer with every available peripheral"). There Satan becomes like most guys who "open their souls, they get so sweet and vulnerable...they want to open me up like a package and crawl around and find out exactly what's wrong with me and fix it." While Pipi professes hatred for this type of guy, her rash final act in the story reveals that even she needs a little tenderness.
As its title hints, Julia Slavin's debut collection, The Woman Who Cut Off Her Leg at the Maidstone Club (Holt), takes readers to a macabre alternate reality--in this case, upper-class suburbia. There Slavin's cast inhabits what appear to be normal lives; they drive Saabs and Volvos, collect antiques, and worry about babyproofing their houses. Yet supernatural events puncture their manicured lives. Slavin depicts them chasing love like the rest of us--obsessively, painfully, and often with a humorous lack of success. Only they fall for and fornicate with their backyard foliage, childhood blankies, and even an eight-pound lobster.
In "Swallowed Whole," a bored housewife meets and quickly devours her luscious lawn boy: "I sucked him down my throat. All of him....[and] watched his feet lift off the ground and follow the rest of him down my gullet." While their affair ends with his eventual expulsion from her body, the story's conceit shows how deeply a lover can get under one's skin. In "Dentaphilia," a man falls in love with a woman "who grew teeth all over her body." "I thought it was sexy," he initially confesses, yet when his lover's teeth start coming in faster than a two-year-old's, from her toes to her sternum, it tests the strength of their relationship's molars. By dint of her clean prose, Slavin overcomes that flicker of resistance--the one that says this is not real--as she spins these mordantly comic suburban tales from the crypt.
While Slavin's flashier fables sometimes have more dazzle than depth, the earthbound stories in this collection carry emotional heft. "Rare Is a Cold Red Center" gives voice to Corky, a recovering addict trying to make good tending the grill at a busy burger joint. With a quick wit, Slavin captures Corky's twitchy world, and shows how hard he works to keep clean. And in "Painting House," an adolescent girl is grounded and must spend her summer painting a house with her 16-year-old stepbrother Phil. During previous summers she and Phil filled their time with the type of taboo pantry panky that could get them grounded for life. Yet with their parents away and secrecy unnecessary, she and Phil develop a deeper affection, a longing for something closer to the heart than the groin. Wise and careful in their depiction of complex emotions, such stories subtly underscore Slavin's somewhat hopeful and nuanced vision of relationships.
In Circling the Drain (Weisbach/Morrow), Amanda Davis tells stories about people caught in one last spin around life's sinkhole. These romantically fatalistic folks are not just moony adolescents: Fate, by any standard, has been cruel to these characters. They mourn the loss of loved ones to madness, old age, and a plane crash. As a result, the stories have a dirgelike quality, plodding toward their conclusions with a solemn beauty.
In "Prints," a girl discovers her abducted sister's grisly true fate in a cottage basement. In "Testimony," a girl tells how her charming older brother Jack--once accepted into Harvard and by all appearances normal--descends into madness and kills himself. Like the character in "Prints," this narrator begins to think of her sibling, or his memory, as a sort of muse: "I trusted Jack with my future. He was ahead of me by eight years, so I felt certain he would get there first, would tell me how it all turned out." To punctuate this desperation, Davis has her character look to the doomsday fanatics of the Internet for wisdom: "I wanted words, a voice, something, and I quickly became addicted to other people's prophecies....[I]n the gray light of my bedroom, the green glow of my computer, they felt intimate and familiar." Struggling to make sense of their losses, Davis's characters often wind up looking for salvation in all the wrong places.
As a result of this displacement, some of the book's figures lose themselves in woe. "We're just a shadow play of what we once were, ghosts, floating here or there," says the narrator of "Ending Things" as she breaks off with her lover. And in the brilliant "Faith or Tips for the Successful Young Lady," a girl recovering from a suicide attempt battles the ghost of her former self--a mashed-potato-eating, M&M-popping blimp of a girl. In the end, she banishes her ghost by confronting what she has wanted all along--acceptance from the boys who brought her to the brink of suicide.
While these stories show the pitfalls of losing oneself to love (or self-hatred) the collection's one uplifting story "The Very Moment There About" captures the subtle undercurrent of hope that runs through Circling the Drain, as well as the other two collections. This brief story recalls "the last song of the last dance on the second-to-last-night of camp." Two unnamed characters dance as the light fades and counselors break them apart: "[T]hey are both careful and conscious to close their eyes as they lean into each other, unsure of what lies around the next curve, unsure of the very moment they are about to devour." Making that risky next step, these authors seem to say, requires a little humor and some bravery, but it can be done.
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