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Drinking Coffee Elsewhere

By ZZ Packer and

Short People

By Joshua Furst

Two debut collections of short stories by young American writers, one loudly and quite clearly Black, the other quietly but quite probably Jewish. Both, unsurprisingly, are unified by their explorations of the trials and tribulations of growing up. Both are edgily perceptive, depicting a society starkly divided along racial and economic lines, where parents – especially fathers – are feckless or powerless or pompous, or in some other way inadequate, and counsellors and shrinks deal in the devalued currency of cliché, doling out predictably meaningless platitudes.

ZZ Packer partakes of the rambling, discursive style associated with Alice Munro, punctuated by startlingly resonant and insightful sentences. The title story deals with the alienation of Dina, a poor, motherless, black freshman (woman?) at Yale, whose admission during an orientation game that the inanimate object she’d most like to be is a revolver wins her a year’s worth of psychiatric counselling and her own room. She develops an awkward friendship with overweight Canadian Heidi, who is in something of a fugue state as regards her sexual preferences. The Yale setting invites an autobiographical identification, as Packer is a graduate of that institution. As well as the inescapable question of race relations, the exigencies of fundamentalist religion loom large here too. ‘Brownies’ concerns a troop of black girls who believe they have been racially offended, only to discover that the white troop perpetrators are not what they first seem. ‘Every Tongue Shall Confess’ tells of Claresse, an over-zealous evangelical nurse. ‘Speaking in Tongues’ follows 14-year-old church girl Tia as she runs away to the big city in search of the mother who abandoned her, while ‘The Ant of Self’ features a bright young man’s last-ditch attempt to understand his reprobate father during their trip to the Million Man March in Washington DC. ‘Geese’ features Dina again, this time vacuously cut loose in a Tokyo underworld of shiftless down and outs.

 

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Joshua Furst could more usefully be aligned with the smart, slick tone of Bret Easton Ellis or David Foster Wallace. He echoes their awareness of multiple ironies. The best story, ‘The Good Parents’, deals with a couple who realize ‘that perhaps they had indeed been oh-so-slightly “too permissive” right from the get-go’, and so call Social Services on themselves. The hero finally comes to see that his hippie liberal father had ‘aligned himself with the underclass but wanted them to be more like him, like the person he’d turned himself into’. Elsewhere, we encounter in ‘The Age of Exploration’ Jason and Billy, best friends who discover by the age of six how to conquer the world, only to see this idyll then shatter; and in ‘This Little Light’ there’s Shawn, who is tortured by religious parents, and whose baptism compels him to make life a holy hell for everyone around him. Scariest of all is another mad nurse, in ‘Failure to Thrive’, who believes that some of the new-born babies in her care talk to her and ask her to spare them the horrible lives that awaiting them, and so she ‘hands them back to heaven’, or rather, assists their early deaths. She kills, or as she has it, ‘saves’, fourteen in all.
Both of these collections deserve attention, and auger well for their authors’ future work.

First published in the Irish Independent

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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