I’ve been intrigued by the phrase “safe as houses” since I first heard it in Depeche Mode’s “Never Let Me Down Again” many years ago. What, exactly, I’ve often wondered, is so safe about houses? Doesn’t some high percentage of household injuries occur within the home? And why are so many of my best observations completely solipsistic?
In many ways, Marie-Helene Bertino’s collection of short stories Safe As Houses obsesses over all of these issues with a wry blend of wit, humor, irony, magic realism, and ultimately hope. Throughout the collection, Bertino offers her readers inventive scenarios in which her characters long for the various and frequently elusive forms that the comforts of home might take. There’s the young woman who loses her home in a fire and attempts to win the affections of her wayward father by buying him a dachshund with the insurance money — all while trying to avoid picking up a free ham she’s won at the local grocery store. There’s (How do I explain this in as few words as possible?) the estranged couple whose component members bump into each other while dating idealized versions of each other. (The story is called “The Idea of Marcel.” I assigned it in my American Lit. class. Trust me… It’s great!) There’s the former record-keeper for a group of rebellious college superheroes who combs through memories of the best years of her life in an effort to figure out how she ended up married to a millionaire and living a beautiful but boring suburban home.
To put it simply, if you like quirky, heartfelt short stories, you’ll find a lot to love in this collection. Throughout the collection, Bertino exhibits a proclivity not only for making the outlandish seem at least provisionally plausible, but also for effectively reversing that formula and making it clear that so much of what we take for meaningful and real is ultimately ephemeral. Though it would be a cliche to suggest that Safe As Houses reminds us that home is where the heart is, I’m half-tempted to say that this is the over-arching point of this collection. Yet Bertino takes that cliche and makes it new by exploring all of its implications and reminding us that home is as much a state of mind as anything else. We are all longing for home in one way or another. Though no story could ever fully satisfy that longing, Bertino’s collection goes a long way toward reminding us that we’re not alone in our quest.
Consisting solely of dialogue, Sumanth Prabhaker’s A Mere Pittance is a subtle yet moving meditation on the transient and fragile nature of life and the relationships that make it meaningful. The novella follows a telephone conversation between a woman who’s lying injured–and possibly dying–in a hospital in an undisclosed country and her lover in the United States. As the pair talk to each other, at each other, across each other, and in each other’s general direction, what emerges is a tale of loneliness imbued with self-discovery. Ostensibly, the woman’s misery is a direct result of an accident involving a poison caterpillar, but her true despair stems from being an outsider not only as a member of her brother’s wedding party, but as a member of the human race. Her lover, meanwhile, obsesses somewhat selfishly over the meanings of words while taking occasional breaks to eat, drink, and be witty. His modus-operandi, it seems, is to keep the conversation light in order to avoid getting too deep with his wayward lover. Aesthetically, the result is a narrative that reads very much like a one-act play cast in the prose style of Don DeLillo or William Gaddis. Insightful as it is charming and bordering on the sublime, A Mere Pittance is anything but.
For those ensconced in the relative safety of campus life, there’s arguably nothing more daunting than the prospect of entering the so-called “real world.” Yet for the college students who populate Spencer Dew’s Here Is How It Happens, the real world rears its ugly head in ways large and small as they struggle to come to grips with the relationships in their lives and the future that lies ahead for all of them. At the heart of the novel is the (largely) unrequited love of the narrator, Martin, for his best friend, Courtney. Complicating matters is the fact that both parties are trapped in dead-end relationships that offer nothing but comfortable tedium. Meanwhile, a host of bizarre goings-on further thwart their efforts at getting together — chief among them being Martin’s efforts at delivering a drug-addled lumberjack of a classmate home to his parents’ house for safekeeping.
Set for the most part at a run-down liberal arts college in a run-down college town in Ohio, the novel is nothing if not gritty. The smell of mold, stale smoke, and cat fur clings to everything and will likely stick with readers long after they’ve put the book down. What’s more, Dew perfectly captures the desperation of his characters to stay true to their ideal selves even as they realize that they’re all doomed to become echoes of their parents. In one particularly telling passage, Courtney laments the inevitable passing of all the relationships she holds dear: “Martin, we’re sophomores in college. This is the end of philosophy. From this point on, everyone we know will get old. We’ll all take jobs involving impatient commutes and pink while-you-were-away memos. The skin under our chins will go soft and droop. Money will crush us. There will never be time or humor enough. Our hairstyles will look stupid in old photographs, and we’ll be ashamed of our spinning dances, the lyrics of punk songs, that we ever drank wine with screw tops or did homework high on diet pills or shoplifted at K-Mart.”
Uplifting? Perhaps not. But certainly true, and certainly moving. In the tradition of other coming of age novels focusing on campus life like Richard Farina’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me and James Wronoski’s Knaves In Boyland, Here Is How It Happens perfectly captures the nebulous gray zone between adolescence and adulthood that is college life.
I’m always excited when Curtis Smith comes out with a new collection of short fiction. I’ve been a fan of his for years now, and his ability to tell a story with wit, wry humor, a good turn of phrase, and, most of all, human kindness, makes Curt’s stories a joy to read. His latest collection, Beasts and Men, is no exception.
Most of the stories in Beasts and Men take place in rural America, and Smith’s characters tend to be outsiders struggling, frequently with heartbreaking yet hopeful results, to find a place in the world. There’s the pair of adulterers who strike a dog with their car only to discover the true nature of their relationship. There’s the high-school outcast trying to carve some modicum of self-possession through prolonged silences and incessant sketching. There’s the young man standing in the backyard of the woman who used to love him, drunk and howling for the love he’s lost. There are winners and losers of all stripes in this collection — all struggling to make sense of the world, all searching for meaning, all intensely and utterly human. Indeed, Smith’s gift for depicting the private moment of spiritual and emotional crisis is on full display throughout Beasts and Men. That he does it so lovingly and with such great care for his characters marks him not only as an author of great skill, but also as one of great compassion.