Saturday, December 26, 2015

Stories to Punch Your Heart: People Like You by Margaret Malone

Of all the books I read in 2015and there were manyfew infected me quite like People Like You by Margaret Malone. This debut collection of stories embodies everything I love about short fiction: it dances on boxer’s feet, moves in quick, punches hard, and then leaves my head ringing. Malone writes about people who are sometimes distraught, sometimes depressed, often anxious, and occasionally misguided; but one thing they arealways, always, alwaysis real. It’s no accident the book is titled People Like You.

These stories stir up the kind of excitement in my readerly bones that I haven’t felt since I first read the works of writers like Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Jamie Quatro, Ron Carlson, Benjamin Percy, Lee Smith, and even Ernest Hemingway. Yes, I’d unhesitatingly add Margaret Malone to that pantheon of authors. Her work embodies the best qualities of each of those writers: terse, detailed, empathetic fiction that is very often funny as hell. It can also be as painful as a tooth extraction. As I wrote earlier here at the blog:
In “People Like You,” average American married couple Cheryl and Bert attend a surprise birthday party for a “friend” they don’t particularly like. They get lost en route, drink too much once there, and leave with some stolen balloons. On the surface, it’s an ordinary evening; but what sets this story apart, what gives it an electric buzz that tastes like you just licked a lamp socket, is what doesn’t happen. With remarkable restraint, Malone takes us on a tour of the tip of the iceberg without feeling the need to state the obvious: there's a massive, continent-sized chunk of ice right below our feet. A current of tension between Cheryl and Bert hums throughout the story. Their marriage is in free fall when we begin our 13-page eavesdrop and they’re both (or at least Cheryl is) frantically scrabbling their hands across their bodies, trying to find the ripcord that will open the marriage-saving parachute. It may or may not happen. That’s not the point. The point is the ride: the wry, jolting, cynical, sweet, hilarious ride Malone takes us on with her sentences. Sentences like: “We drive in silence for minutes, the inside-car hush of our motion, all the best-times feelings dissolving, the thick familiar air starts up between us. Me, driving. Him, sitting there.”

As you can tell by that excerpt from the title story, married characters (in particular Bert and Cheryl who make frequent reappearances) often find themselves standing on opposite sides of a widening gulf of misunderstanding and miscommunication. I keep hoping these men and women will start gathering materials to build a bridge, meeting halfway across the canyon. Though they may come across as dark, these stories always left me warm with optimism. Maybe it’s the way Malone created such believable characters, but I always wished the best for them by the time I reached the final period of the story.

Rather than write a full-blown review of People Like You (because the rest of this post would just be more evangelizing on my part as I beat you across the ears with increasingly harder slaps of cliche-riddled praise), I thought I’d give you the most convincing argument for buying Malone’s book that I could: a collection of my favorite sentences. As I thumb back through the pages of my copy, I find that many of them are covered with marginalia: stars, arrows, emphatic dots. Here then, is a collection of People Like You’s Greatest Hits...

From “The Only One,” in which a girl in middle school is on the verge of discovering the fabulous and scary Kingdom of Sex (this also has a line which made me laugh out loud):

     Kissing was on the way to sex and I knew that I wanted to know what sex was but I also knew I wasn’t supposed to have sex because having sex would mean I was a slut and if I was a slut everyone would want to have sex with me, and then I’d be stuck having sex with everybody all the time, which sounds exhausting. I don’t know when I’d have time to practice the piano.

The opening lines of “Yes”:

     Chuck rings the doorbell and I have my luggage all ready set go by the front door but when I let him in, instead of reaching for my suitcase, Chuck kneels on the hard tile in the entryway and says will you marry me and so I say all right: Chuck’s mom Gladys is watching the whole thing from her car right out front, engine idling, window rolled down, extra long cigarette burning between two straight fingers. After that I yell goodbye to my dad who says bye back but doesn’t come out of the garage to say it, then Chuck helps me squeeze my suitcase and backpack into the crammed trunk of his mom’s car and slam the lid shut. And we’re off.
     So now I’m engaged. I am reserved, like a table at a restaurant.

Also from “Yes”:

     Gladys smokes like it was just invented, brand new and full of possibility.

     Reno is a smudge of tallish buildings and neon-signed casinos, dry desert mountains all around. It’s almost a tiny Vegas but feels unfinished, like someone took a lunch break in the middle of building it and never came back.

     If I could propose, what I’d want to marry is that feeling I feel when Chuck and I are riding fast on his bike, winding our way up the forested incline, our bodies intuitively leaning left and right with the weight of the beautiful machinery underneath us, the two-lane road all ours except for the passing of the occasional car headed in the opposite direction and oh how we feel sorry for them, those passengers, they do not know what they’re missing, the warm air against my bare shoulders, the streams of sunlight sneaking through the heavy pines, the smell of dusty heat and warmed pavement and the cool damp of the forest floor, my arms wrapped around Chuck, my smile so wide I have to tuck my face into his shoulder so I don’t swallow air, my whole body, each cell, singing with the abandon of being part of every single thing.

The opening line of “Saving the Animals”:

     My boss Barb is wearing her tailored black raincoat with her pajamas underneath.

From “Good Company”:

     Marcus and I are going on two years together but we have sex like couples that have been married for twenty. Not in terms of frequencywe do it a lot. But we do it the way a person might do something really challenging over and over again with no real hope of reward, like taking the SATs for the tenth time to raise a score above 1,000. A labor of love, without the love part.

     We pass the synthesized singing of a group of slot machines, like squat levered birds. Plastic chips fall into other plastic chips, deadened against the quiet of felt.

I’ll leave you with this passage, from “Welcome to Samsara,” a heartbreaking story about a couple’s miscarriage and their visit to a grief counselor which ends like this:

     He reached out to shake her hand with his free hand and for a moment the three of us formed a human chain, like together we might break out into song to oppose senseless killings or an oppressive regime; but what had happened to us wasn’t anything like that: it was only a miscarriage, the single quiet slipping away of something that wasn’t quite something enough yet.

Unlike that lost child, these stories are quite something indeed.

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