Sideways as a State of Being
Half as Happy
(Engine Books, 2013)
On the cover of Gregory Spatz’s new story collection Half as Happy is a black-and-white photograph of a couple. The woman (her one-piece suit says ’50s) sits knees aligned on a twine-covered diving board and smiles down at the man who is reaching up from the water, one of his hands clasping the board, the other holding hers. They look spirited straight from Wonder Bread America, the postwar-boom, golden U.S.A. said never to be coming back: one of the most economically egalitarian U.S.A.s in recorded time but also a U.S.A. plagued by racism and sexism and homophobia and environmentally retrograde practices that the civil rights and other protest movements forcefully diagnosed from the ’60s onward. The guy in the photo looks like he’s thinking of pulling the woman into the water.
Half as Happy is Spatz’s second story collection. He has a novel recently out (Inukshuk, Bellevue Literary Press) and writes about classical music too. The stories here are mostly about couples, adult relationships, how happy the adults are being in the couples they are in. A few stories are stranger: one about a mother’s relationship to her distant son who calls in the middle of the night to ask her for a recipe she used to make for her children and ex-husband. Others feel decidedly surreal, elastic, set in ersatz worlds: a group stops by the shop of a virtuoso bowmaker who keeps a legion of cats the visitors can smell but can’t see. In the final story of the collection, boys prank a driver on a country road, springing a ghost scarecrow of their own crafting and frightening the driver into an accident.
Only a few of the stories in Half as Happy snap right along: “Luck”—about an older couple on a cruise endeavoring to outpace a personal tragedy—and “String”—about—yes—the string of events that result from those kids’ scarecrow prank. Spatz’s stories, like the best of Nicholson Baker, count on virtuoso prose to sustain a reader’s interest as the narrative line goes slack, or completely off the tracks: David Foster Wallace getting out of bed in the morning in his introduction to Everything and More, the moment inside the moment inside the moment.
These stories go sideways with zeal. Cumulatively, they address “sideways” as a state of being. From the heights reached for by the prose, the characters return to themselves and the present moment usually through sexual acts. Which is how many of us of sound body and healthy mind might like to return to present action from our preoccupations. However, the dissonance between Spatz’s cerebral, nearly essayistic character discourses and subsequent, plot-advancing lines like “Sickening to think the closest connection he had in the world just then was to that drunk woman tacoed under his bedspread at home” can be jarring.
Note the word choice ‘tacoed.’ The story is called “No Kind of Music.” We know the character as a solitary symphony enthusiast, separated from his wife. It is difficult to fathom why he thinks like a jaded OkCupid user.
In other places, a character’s literary experience feels weirdly literary: a husband who has recently lost his only child, a newborn, and is in danger of drifting apart from his wife, muses about how “the whole dead child thing was beginning to be more and more of a chore. A contrivance and a thing to butt up against in frustration.” Provocative thought, to be sure, but presented from nowhere in the story and not grounded in any experience we have previously observed. It seems like a pose about the sort of loss that lays waste to posing.
At his best, it should be said, Spatz delivers intricate fiction that goes against the grain of conventional expectation. There are stories here that have the potential to linger in memory for their sheer unlikelihood, that rare never-read-anything-like-it quality. From out of the blue where the characters in this collection spend so much time arrives a sentence like this one in “Luck”: “The man peered up at him, eyebrows lifting, ready with his own questions and counter-accusations, bringing those from behind the screen of puzzled worry and politeness into words: Do I know you? Have you lost something?”
JEFF PRICE is a fiction writer whose reviews have appeared in the Millions, Electric Literature, the Washington Post, and elsewhere.