Sunday, March 31, 2013

30 Days of the Flannery O'Connor Award: Day 27

E.J. Levy on Nancy Zafris' THE PEOPLE I KNOW

Good short stories, I’ve always believed, draw you into their worlds, but great stories convince you that their characters are out there, living their lives beyond the borders of the page. Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog” is great by such a measure, as is Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” so, I would say, is Amy Hempel’s “In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” George Saunders’ “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” and the title story from Nancy Zafris’ hilarious and heartbreaking collection, The People I Know.

Each of these stories haunts me as if I had lived among its characters and leaves me with the sense that they are living still, somewhere out there, making their way through the world as we are. Unlike stories that I study for their craft or to steal moves, I read and reread Zafris’ collection because the stories leave me amazed by human character, baffled by how love is forged of such flimsy material as we.

In Zafris’ magnificent title story, “The People I Know,” a daughter in her senior year of high school and her mother battle with their alcoholic roommate, as the daughter battles for a foothold in her mother’s affections and the world. There is a best friend, a Heimlich maneuver, a hypochondriac, a poolside encounter, a heroic restaurant rescue, but it’s not what happens that matters so much as the sensibility it is refracted through. The daughter is indelible in a way I cannot take apart, in the way that people I love are. The things she thinks and experiences linger in my mind and return to me like memory:
“In my heart I don’t believe that he ever existed, biological necessity to the contrary. Nevertheless, references to my father always intrigue me. Because I have never seen him, not even in photographs, I dream of him in my own version of Braille—odors and shadows, and sounds (usually of a pan being thrown). There’s never a face, though often the camera follows a pair of feet. Sometimes there are several pairs of feet. They follow behind me like visible footsteps of invisible men.”
These stories range broadly in subject and setting—from a Japanese businessman pursuing a fleeting affair in Tokyo to an American metal shredder discovering riches in the trunk of a corpse-reeking car, from a mother who loses her eldest son to drowning to the widower of an alcoholic wife who finds consolation in an AA meeting.

What unites these seemingly disparate fictions is their concern for what’s missing: these are stories haunted by absence (missing corpses, missing family members; missing feelings). The Japanese businessman is mystified by his demotion to a remote island town, the coldness of his marriage, the disappearance of his childhood friend—unsure how he has lost what mattered most. The successful lawyer narrator of the final story seems mystified by her inability to feel more fiercely, as her chaotic older sister does. “Could I sense already that my future contained a procession of humble pleasures which would give more joy to others than to me…that the more alarming passions would not be mine?”

Bleak and beautiful, these stories are the best kind of funny—rising above sad; here, wit comes of close observation until heartbreak gives rise to something else, as when the protagonist of “Cosmetic Surgery” observes: “Men who liked themselves, she noticed, tended to keep their hands in their pockets, jangling their change as if their pennies were bonus testicles.” Or “Even so young, she was full of untimely obituaries. She watched each year contribute to a growing casualty list. Death of her face. Death of pleasure from being slightly ugly. Death of social embarrassment. Death of gustatory excitement. Great passions of a year ago lacked so much as the tingle of taste you get from licking a postage stamp.”

These are terrifically smart stories about which I find it hard to be smart, because to do so would reduce them, make them smaller than they are. The highest compliment I can offer. All I can really say about The People I Know is, Read It. These are people you want to know, too.

E. J. Levy is the author of LOVE, IN THEORY (2012), which is a finalist for the Edmund White Award and the ForeWord Book of the Year Award. Her fiction and essays have appeared in the Paris Review, Orion, the New York Times, and Best American Essays, among other places.