New York Storiesby John Domini
My Brooklyn Writer Friend
(Queens Ferry Press, 2015)
(Bellevue Literary Press, 2016)
Here we have two new selections of stories from two New Yorkers, both on smaller presses, both by men we might still call young. More significantly, both refract their light through the same aesthetic prism—often throwing off lovely colors, I must add. Their approach allows for fictions of a single page and for description that’s little more than designation, as in “the big woman” in Gerke’s opener and “the battlefield” in Lopez’s. Neither offers specifics, and in all that the drama does without, in the bump to which it reduces Freytag’s Triangle, both texts count as “minimalist,” for lack of a better word. Sooner or later, they’ll draw comparison to Lydia Davis.
If I sound dismissive, that’s not what I intend. Granted, most days I prefer a fat dollop of DeLillo, say: fiction sensually enriched and socially engaged. Still, anyone who cares about the contemporary American short story can’t ignore a sketchy but delightful ellipsoid like Lopez’s “Essentials,” which works around some unspecified crisis in a manic cavalcade of names and oddball connections (“she let me feel her up when we were sixteen, so I’m sure I owe her something”). Then there’s Gerke’s “Three Women,” a stocking-stuffer of a different kind, but likewise a pleasure to unwrap; the piece starts with therapy and then tickles out desire: “she told me I should probably go to another neurologist because this one clearly didn’t like me and what else did I want from her, free samples?”
Similar small bites have spiced up a number of good recent collections, like Amelia Gray’s Gutshot. Then too, while so-called “flash fiction” may be something of tulip craze, the initial plantings go back to Hemingway and Kafka. Now Gerke and Lopez each bring a fresh sensibility to the mode—though one of them a bit fresher. Lopez has an earlier collection and two novels, including the much-praised Kamby Bolongo Mean River (2009), while My Brooklyn Writer Friend is Gerke’s debut.
If I say that Gerke’s debut has a New York feel, it’s not just because of the title, the references to Bushwick and “Bed-Stuy,” or the concluding line in the author bio: “He lives in Brooklyn.” Rather, this perception derives, first, from the invariably cramped accommodations, spurring squabbles over the least thing. The four-part “Suite,” for instance, sets up a nice aggrieved counterpoint between a bookcase and a CD (lute music, what else?). Even when events turn surreal, mostly in the later stories, the impossible infects things like wall-screws. Second, so many of these fictional figures work in the arts or, especially, literature. The longest of Brooklyn Writer’s five sections is an eleven-piece sequence titled “Scribblers.”
More than that, when these elements yield a clear emotional content, it’s the same as in O. Henry’s New York, namely, the search for connection. All the “Three Rich Women,” for instance, distract the narrator with some whiff of love interest, and he concludes about the last: “I’m paying to make her happy.” The self-reflexive “Zoo Ending,” a fascinating two-pager about a writer in mid-composition, ends on the poignant distance between the story’s happy ending, its “small promise” for imaginary people, and the man’s own isolation, “in a strange room on a couch not meant for sleeping.” A pang like that registers in a good handful of these stories, yet even in those, that someone should care remains no more than a small promise. Affection finds expression not in a lover’s body but in her accessories: “I liked that bed. I liked the coffee adding up in the kitchen.”
The playful verb is typical of Gerke’s felicities, and that story, “I Might Be Here in February,” runs three full pages, enough to climax, sort of, in yearning. When the beloved declares, “we aren’t a bowling team, you know,” her man thinks, “my heart, these are coping mechanisms.” Such flashes of wit, illuminating pain while distracting us from it, also underscore this author’s determination to work “without lyricism,” as another of his “Scribblers” puts it. Rarely does the rhetoric rise, and even in the outstanding exception, the close of “Here is the Poem,” the vocabulary remains restrained: “Deep inside, her fingers pluck. She forecasts more breath and less herself.” The moment embodies emotional poles, “the woman” dreaming in poetry (with a hint of masturbation in those “fingers”) while “the man” withdraws into studies of Elizabeth Bishop (herself an advocate of American plainsong). That sort of balance, formal as a suite, most defines the accomplishment of My Brooklyn Writer Friend.
Robert Lopez ranges further, into sea voyages and open country, and he’s got a freer hand with both the impossible and the poetry. A fine flourish comes late in Good People, with a narrator “playing tennis under the everywhere sky,” seeking relief from “the tedious litany of daily disturbance.” His next means of relief, in “A Regular Day for Real People,” proves neither regular nor real, yet it generates a screwball intensity that hoists the piece up among the top two or three here—an important feat, for a story that may be the longest here. Better yet, its likewise-lengthy predecessor, “I Want to Kiss Myself, Good God,” milks the supernatural handsomeness of its narrator not just for that laugh-worthy title but also for a painful comeuppance, taking down the Alpha Male. The man’s perspective, in fact, rules almost exclusively in Lopez and Gerke, and that too can put on damper on a reader’s appreciation. Regardless, in Good People, these two later fictions stand as the collection’s peak.
Their success depends, actually, on classic elements like a compelling situation (though one that requires setting aside laws of science), and suspense over its outcome. A remarkable thing, in a text so lackadaisical about the conventions that both “Regular Day” and “Kiss Myself” do without quotation marks or ordinary paragraphing. Earlier in Good People too, Lopez plays fast and loose with sentence formation. “Family of Man on the Isle of Wight,” the first story, commences side-of-the-mouth, “Let me understand something to you,” and thereafter slings the bull from coffee shop to battlefield and back again, all in a single seven-page sentence. Other stories too, while allowing themselves more than one sentence, ramble unbroken over page after page.
The reading experience of such fiction can drag, as we struggle to sort out the materials. If the results achieve clarity and impact, it can depend too much on the closing lines, such as in “Family of Man,” which arrives finally at a nutty-sweet ritual of communion. So for the collection as a whole, this problem points up another remarkable thing.
No question, Lopez brings off a fine short-short in “Essentials.” He does it again in “Why We’re Trapped in a Failed System,” which has clowns collapsing in tears and sounds the text’s theme — the Good, in Good People, itself seems a trap. No question, keeping things short and streety are intrinsic to his project; the lone literary reference I caught was (talk about short and streety) the red wheelbarrow of William Carlos Williams. Nonetheless, this writer could use a better editor. Even pieces I rated eventually among the best could piddle around. “Welcome to Someplace Like Piscataway” left deep and memorable scars, with its domestic breakdown, but we went a long time, in another of the longest pieces, before we felt the cuts. In more ordinary fiction, to be sure, what would have filled the slower stretches would be data like the thickness of the love-object’s wallet, or the softness of her kisses. But then, “Piscataway” also includes what may be the determining statement for fiction such as this: “This is how the world works sometimes. Time and math don’t always apply.”
JOHN DOMINI's latest book is The Sea-God's Herb, selected criticism, and in 2016 he will bring out a new set of stories, MOVIEOLA!