Review of Mary Miller’s story “Another City” published in Southwest Review

Caroline, the protagonist in Mary Miller’s story “Another City,” is so affectingly forthright it’s difficult not to be entranced by her roaming thoughts paired with brutal directness. This is a character who attracts a crowd while telling stories at happy hour because of the speed with which her mind races and the comedic timing of her insights: “I wait for [my boyfriend] to say more but he doesn’t. He is a great pauser… [his pauses] can go on so long I nearly have a panic attack every time he pulls into a Wendy’s.” This conversation occurs while finding out the reason for her boyfriend’s tardiness. It’s because one of his “cute” students got bumped by a car. By “cute” he meant “She’s a good student.” Still, Caroline presses him on the relational dynamic.

              “Are you attracted to her?”

              “No, Caroline. I’m not attracted to nineteen-year-old girls.” And then he asks what I want for dinner. Do I need him to pick anything up? What do I want to watch on TV later? There are so many arbitrary questions that he would like me to answer, but I’m still thinking about the girl who cracked her pelvis and if he wants to fuck her.”

But Caroline is capable of more than humor. Her insights are just as moving as her one-liners. Referring to her boyfriend’s daughter, Hailey, with whom she has a complicated relationship, she says, “I want to call her over to the bed and smell the chlorine on her skin, brush the tangles out of her hair. I’d be so careful, so careful.”

And what would humor and insight be without existential proclamations: “To be alive is a goddamn miracle.” Caroline knows what’s up.

And this is essentially what the story is about. A celebration of being alive in the wake of a divorce and a general sense of unease and unhappiness, along with conflicted notions of how to handle her boyfriend’s daughter, which is really the heart of this story, all contained within, I’d guess, 2500 words. And in that timeframe, we understand the strained relationship the narrator has with her boyfriend, a relationship that has lost all the luster of those early days of any “in love” relationship, and the boyfriend’s daughter who Caroline wants a relationship with, but she’s just not sure what kind: quasi-parent or friend.

I’m probably not the best person to be discussing anything Mary Miller writes with any amount of objectivity. I’ve been enamored by her work since the great discovery of Big World, her debut story collection published by SF/LD Books (Hobart’s publishing arm), however many years ago. Her work then and now is marked by what Hemingway discussed as men and women working at love. And yet her stories are about so much more.

For instance, early in “Another City,” Caroline see-saws between wanting to scold her boyfriend’s daughter, Hailey, for her carelessness (leaving a cast iron skillet on open flames for so long it “glows bright red… about to burst into a fireball”), and the tenderness mentioned above—about wanting to spend time with her. Maybe hangout in her room to listen to records and “watch how fast she can text.” We know there’s an underlying envy and interest in the girl by all the wonderful observations. That she’s “breezily confident” and “beautiful.” That she can get away with “sloppiness” and for Caroline, that’s what “galls [her] the most.”

But what really “galls” her the most, or perhaps what is simply a sad resignation, is that Caroline is stuck with a boyfriend whose featured strengths are his pauses (remember, he’s “a great pauser”) and how he gets “so messed up” on whiskey that “he can hardly speak.” Oh, the charms of relationships! Meanwhile, Hailey is in love with a girl who lives in another state, and exhibits all the signs of experiencing that naïve love: long FaceTime conversations that enable temporary amnesia thus causing her to neglect basic responsibilities such as turning off a stove.

And maybe I was wrong before. Maybe this is actually what the story is about: how it’s unrealistic for us to stay in that “in love” giddy space forever—the butterflies, etc. But for a passionate, sensitive romantic like Caroline, there will always be a part of her that clings to those people who are still blind to what their relationship will inevitably become—that being “in love” can’t last forever. Yes, “to be alive is a goddamn miracle.” But maybe the real miracle is that some relationships last. Some relationships work. And work well. Maybe the real miracle is the existance of some alchemy that binds people together past the butterfly stage. Not only binds them together, but maybe even sustains them. That, truly, might be the real “goddamn miracle.”

Check out Mary Miller’s fantastic story here.

Mary Miller is the author of two novels, Biloxi and The Last Days of California, as well as two story collections, Always Happy Hour and Big World. Her work has appeared in The Paris ReviewPushcart Prize XLIV: Best of Small Presses 2020 EditionThe Best of McSweeney’s QuarterlyAmerican Short Fiction, and others. She is a former Grisham writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi (2014-15) and Michener Fellow at the University of Texas.

Flash Friday Review: “There, I Said It” by Tori Malcangio, published in The Lascaux Review

There, I Said It” is flash fiction piece that explores a person’s incomprehensible pain and sorrow at the literal hands of those who should protect and comfort.

The story, narrated by Kiva, moves by section (or stanza – it is poetically rendered) from Kiva’s mind/memories to the physical movements and actions of her college roommate, Romy. A shower curtain hangs between their beds. An “innocence shield,” according to Romy.

Still, Kiva sees and hears things: the bodies, the whispers, the “cakey” voices, the “happymist.” Romy, “serial lover,” her cup overfloweth. And what happens in the wake of excess? Inevitable disappointment, maybe boredom, maybe new realizations: “too much give, and not enough get.”

But what of Kiva, the so-called virgin?

What happens when she’s stuck in a box full of noises and body parts (Romy and a new person every night) that remind her of the horror of home?

She internalizes it and we readers are there alongside her, experiencing the pain and agony of betrayal, though betrayal is perhaps the nicest word one could use in describing her pain.

The story is masterfully crafted—turning in on itself, revealing perfectly timed insights made more poignant through reoccurring images and details: the haiku, the color pink, the music.

There, I Said It,” is a brilliant though painful story of terror— enduring another person’s transgressions—and its aftermath.

Tori Malcangio received a journalism degree from Arizona State University and an MFA from Bennington College. Stories have appeared in Glimmer TrainMississippi ReviewTampa ReviewZYZZYVAPassages North, and elsewhere. She won the William Van Dyke Short Story Prize, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, the Waasmode Short Fiction Prize, and the Cincinnati Review Robert and Adele Schiff Award.

On Reading John Edgar Wideman

One of my recent emails, Paris Review Redux, included a link to one of John Edgar Wideman’s stories, “Sightings,” published in 2004. Ever since I read Philadelphia Fire maybe twelve years ago now, I’ve read pretty much everything I’ve come across with the author’s name, this being one of them. And like all of Wideman’s work, it left me in awe of his propulsive prose.

Reading John Edgar Wideman’s work is an experience unlike any other: cerebral, experimental, challenging. As a new-ish reader/READER twelve years ago, I wasn’t attracted to Wideman’s sentences so much as his love of basketball. Philadelphia Fire (which isn’t about basketball, really) possesses elaborate scenes of young men playing hoops on outdoor courts, something of my childhood that I could cotton to as an immature reader more interested in subject matter than the alchemic cohesion and rhythmic sounds of nuanced sentences on the page, of which Wideman is a genius-master.

The summer following my experience reading Wideman’s Philadelphia Fire, I had plans to meet friends out in Colorado, but before dipping through Fort Collins and eventually onto Steamboat Springs, I had convinced my wife to drive north through Laramie where Wideman had once lived and taught. He no longer lived in Laramie, but I wanted to see what he saw; hear what he heard. I wanted to walk those same city streets and lay eyes on the same railroad tracks and eat in the same cafes that no doubt Wideman had experienced at one point in his life. Had Wideman taught anywhere else—say, a larger city of any kind—this experience of re-living his steps wouldn’t have held the same allure. But we were in Laramie, a town of mystery in its own right.

Walking those sparsely populated streets, with a pleasant lack of stimuli, one could see how a writer’s mind could be (over)stimulated—possessed not of the external, but of the inward; how, given the appropriate silence and space, a person’s thoughts are allowed to occupy and multiply in a space normally taken up by honking cars and should-to-shoulder foot traffic which, on the day I visited Laramie, was virtually nonexistant.

While there, I bought a book in a bookshop that I accessed through an alleyway. The bookshop was on the second floor, and I had to climb a set of iron stairs mounted to the side of the building in order to enter. There were a few people in the shop, and as I perused the books, I settled on the one closest to the cash register. A pocket-sized The Elements of Style by Strunk & White. I didn’t know at the time what attracted me to such a helpful (albeit boring) book. Perhaps it was that I wanted to be a writer myself, and I thought surely this book couldn’t hurt. Now, several years later, what I like about that purchase is knowing how Wideman’s work—with all its fancy lingual dexterity—wouldn’t fit neatly into anything Strunk & White advocated; that Wideman set out to break all the rules and in so doing created his own inimitable (element of) style.

If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, try reading the first paragraph of Wideman’s story “Sightings.” 1500 manic words, all one sentence.

What do you suppose Strunk & White would have to say about that?

Heart of the Matter: A Review of “Corzo” by Brenna Gomez, originally published in Prairie Schooner, republished online in The Dark Magazine

B. Nathanial Steelman

Dare I say, my Laurel Edition of Anna Karenina provokes as much by the epic narrative as by the former owner’s liberal, however often derisive, edits. Before one even opens this classic, “LEO TOLSTOY’S GREATEST HEROINE” on the cover has been revamped (or revitalized? vandalized?) into “LEO TOLSTOY’S GREATEST HEROINE flop.” And on the first page of the front matter, “LEO TOLSTOY” has (d)evolved into “Leo the Lion.” Sure, these two possibly droll, certainly cheap alterations are of the ilk you’d suspect to find, insofar as they are legitimately juvenile, lurking in the stacks of a high school library. That said, there is a platter of amendments housed inside my copy and many of them steam with bona fide, if nihilistic, cultural criticism. Here is the crème de la crème: etched into the very sentence among those in the pantheon of story-starters, the reader observes that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” has, indeed, become “Happy families are all alike sick; every unhappy family is unhappy dead in its own way.”

Touché? For better or worse, family is, as a fountainhead, a framework, that experience and structure we humans can neither shake nor escape, if only on the procedural—that is, subconscious—level. It’s too deft and deep. Even if a family has absented from a person’s life, a boy’ll still stretch into those voids to feel, as he yearns, for attachments. Family makes us who we are. Take Brenna Gomez’s debut short story, brilliant and tragic. Published originally in print by Prairie Schooner in Spring 2017 and republished online by The Dark Magazine in May 2019, “Corzo” is about nothing other than a family struggling to find equilibrium. Specifically, you could say it is about heart

I may never forget the opening scene. I had thought it was a dream, at first, or a sort of horror that Fuckhead gets himself into in Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. A young daughter, yet one matured by the dint of parental dysfunction, arrives home after school and sees in her father “a ragged chest wound the size of a plum”; he asks her to help him cut out his heart. After mija refuses, her father, Eduvigo Herrera III, implores her, “‘Please do this for me. I never ask you for anything.’” Accordingly, mija—Sara—identifies the falsity of this claim, inasmuch as she, being the daughter and the big sister, frequently is asked to do too much by and for her parents who religiously partake in “epic screaming matches” and methods of self-destruction; incumbent upon her is, too, the pressure to get “straight As, to never be in trouble.” But—because she is, precisely, the daughter—she relents and seizes her father’s heart: “It was soft around the edges and firm in the center. Every so often it shuddered like it didn’t know it wasn’t being used anymore. It was a deep purple so dark it looked black.” And if the premise thus far hasn’t compelled me to see what happens next, this specificity of imagery convinces me of the narrator’s rectitude, and the author’s, to boot, which I oblige to trust and honor by reading.

Flannery O’Connor ascribes such images to so called “anagogical vision”: “the kind of vision that is able to see different levels of reality in one image or one situation.” In her lecture “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” from the collection Mystery and Manners, the storied writer banishes the notion that fiction is predicated upon the abstract, and rather champions the notion that the art form is “about everything human and we are made out of dust.” The form is about, in other words, a human’s experience through her senses; and the form achieves any meaning by the overall medley of these senses as they experience circumstances over time. And so, when Eduvigo requests, additionally, that mija cut his heart up like dinner meat, to squeeze the pieces through the mouth of the empty Corzo tequila bottle—and when the mother, Izzy, arrives home and declares that Eduvigo shouldn’t have made the daughter do it, and when the knowledge is made known that Eduvigo’s grandfather had taught him the ancient cultural practice of excising a heart to punish loved ones—and so on and so forth goes the medley—the image of the heart inside the Corzo bottle embodies, literally and metaphorically, the heart of Gomez’s story: an Hispanic family centered around patriarchy and its pathology. Don [Somebody], the former owner of my copy of Anna Karenina, wouldn’t, I imagine, be astonished.

Subsequently, the Herreras are haunted by a man who loiters both alive and dead. Izzy begins to habitually recite the Hail Mary; suddenly, to Sara, she looks old; and she painstakingly attempts to tip off those bygone screaming matches with her husband, however great with rage they had been. Freddie, the little brother—whose name is poignantly close to Ed, as if to insinuate an Herrera III will, of course, pass on to an Herrera IV—prattles on at school about zombies. While Sara, the point of view and the narrator, imagines pressing a hot iron to her father’s face—“Would he even feel it?”—and she cannot concentrate at school; and the trauma could explain why she misreads a boy’s foul intentions for fair. Meanwhile, Eduvigo, heartless, bleeds through his work shirts; he no longer laughs, yells—in a word, feels. Subtle but sure, the irony regarding masculinity plays convincingly. In America, we have inculcated an archetype of masculinity, that a man is austere, stoic, among other things. In “Corzo,” a man has to die—in a manner of speaking—to become this way; and his wife wants the former—we suppose volatile—man back, because she does not know who, nor what, this other man in her kitchen is, nor doing, the fountainhead of familismo having now been compromised. 

On a yellowed notecard, scrawled in faded blue cursive, Don holds forth two inquiries re: the following cultural constructs: What is a successful marriage? and Why love? Honest questions, to be sure, no matter intonation. There are certain regions of the mind made gray, we know, by altogether bewildering, embattling percepts in our everyday lives. Nurses who smoke like chimneys, for example, or spouses who berate, but who “love,” each other—as in “Corzo”—epitomize the conundrum of not practicing the preaching. Why upkeep institutions, such as marriage—even love—if their abuse dwarfs reward is a premise always worth writing about, insofar as wellbeing hangs in the balance. Gomez owns it. She’s shaped a short fiction through the sensibilities of a young narrator whose upbringing by all means substantiates O’Connor’s zinger that “anybody who has survived childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

“Corzo” is, ultimately, a reflection. Set in the past, over approximately a couple of weeks, mija—which means daughter in Spanish—still at this late date needs to know just what happened. To her father, sure. But more to her little brother, Freddie, it seems. Toward the end of the story, after she and Freddie arrive home during another screaming match, Freddie takes the bottled heart to his father and says the he still wants his dad. Freddie hurls the artifact over the apartment’s railing, the glass—a motif—shatters, as glass iconically does when it collides with just enough stubbornness. His father does not react. The most striking line of all the story: “‘Dad,’” Freddie says, “‘didn’t even get mad and nothing happened to him. He’s like invincible.’” And the most striking response of all the story, from Sara: “‘Damn it, Freddie!” she screams, “‘Just eat your dinner.’” Because trauma, so easily and cunningly, is transmitted generation to generation at some, and yet every, point.