4.5 out of 5 stars
Cut to the Chase:
Gates creates a hosts of characters who are ordinary, extraordinary, tragic, and believable: they are steeped in both cynicism and hope, they both loathe and love the environments around them, they talk to themselves, saying, “enough with the similes and sentimentalities!” yet often taking us there anyway. They’re meta — really meta — at times, always self-deprecating, make a host of mistakes and justifications (adultery, drugs, escape from the city to suburbia), and find small relief in their daily routines. The dialogue is quick, sparse, and effective, and the struggles are familiar and easy to empathize with… overall, this is one of the strongest short story collections I’ve read.
As always, with a short story collection, I prefer to do mini-synopses and let that speak for itself:
The Mail Lady – one of my favorites, we have here a born-again Christian who’s suffered a debilitating stroke trying to live within the confines of his new world: he struggles to communicate with those around him, and lives almost completely within his head, constantly misunderstood by his wife, finding both the irony and the absurdity in all that is around him.
The Bad Thing — a pregnant woman who drinks too much one night is torn between trying to justify to herself that things will be okay, while trying to figure out how to fill up the liquor bottle so her husband won’t find out what she’s done.
Star Baby — Billy leaves the city and his lovers to live in his family home. He finds himself sleeping in his parent’s bed, trying to deal with being gay in a smaller community, and watching his young nephew while his sister deals with her drug addiction.
Beating — a Jewish wife tries to come to terms with her extreme Leftist husband, a man who reads Pound and whose anger over the injustices rules him, while she quietly rents children’s movies and tries to come to terms with who they’ve both become.
Saturn — they’ve just bought a big house, and everyone seems to be visiting, things should be going so well – yet the young woman finds herself smoking dope, growing more anxious and promising herself: this is the last time, she hates this feeling…
Many of these characters make realizations which we almost blush to be made aware of — Uncle Billy in “Star Baby” is relieved when he finds he is not attracted to his young nephew – yet can’t help but think, yes, that is just the type of normal yet perverted thought we would probably think, at the most inappropriate moments. In “Saturn,” a young woman justifies her affair by noting that she separates herself from her lover with both a condom and a diaphragm, which must mean she’s given more of herself, been closer with, her husband. Still, they feel like thoroughly believable people; you empathize with them despite their sometimes awful choices and actions.
Comparisons to Other Authors:
Some of the over-thinkers remind me of characters from Haslett’s You are Not a Stranger Here or more meta/intense versions of Nick Hornby’s immature males (these are the grown-up versions here). “The Mail Lady” in particular reminds me of Julian Barnes’s collection The Lemon Table, though there’s a sparsity of language here (like all things Raymond Carver) mixed with sardonic humor that keeps the action constantly moving forward.