Saturday, July 10, 2010

New Yorker 's 20 Under 40--ZZ Packer and C.E. Morgan

“Dayward” by ZZ Packer

ZZ Packer’s rise to big-city buzz and media stardom began with the summer 2000 special Debut Fiction issue of The New Yorker. Accompanying her story, “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere,” was a full-page photo of Packer sitting on some rough city steps beside a cracked, graffiti wall. Dressed simply in black slacks and a white top, her hair in cornrows, she stares at the camera with a sullen, even angry, look. Given this projected persona, it is not surprising that reviewers of her first book of short stories, of which The New Yorker story is the title piece, called her a fresh voice of the outsider and the disenfranchised. However, ZZ Packer is no child of the ghetto who rose up shaking her fist in righteous anger at white economic oppression. Born in Louisville, Ky, her parents were a middle-class small business owner and a schoolteacher. She is a Yale graduate, who also attended the prestigious Writing Seminar at Johns Hopkins University as well as the influential Iowa Writers Workshop.

What Packer succeeded in doing in her collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere was to create African American characters either who are not defined solely by their race or by their economic status, or whose assertion of race is a relatively harmless result of the uncertainty of well-meaning whites. For example, “Brownies,” whose narrator is a young African American girl at summer camp with her Brownie troop, begins as a typical race prejudice story with her friends vowing to kick the butts of a troop of little white girls who have come to camp with complexions like a blend of strawberry and vanilla ice cream, packing Disney character sleeping bags. The African American girls are tough-talkers who laugh that the white girls smell like wet Chihuahuas and who scornfully call everything dumb or distasteful “Caucasian.” The immediate cause of the conflict develops when one of the African American girls hears a white girl use the hated “N” word. Although the talk of retaliation is tough, it comes from the mouths of very young children, who are not quite sure what would be the appropriate revenge, except maybe putting daddy longlegs in the white girls’ sleeping bags and then beating them as flat as frying pans when they wake up.

By the time the black girls decide to corner the white kids in the bathroom, the narrator says that the revenge was no longer about one of them being called a derogatory name, for the word that started it all now seems to have turned into something deeper and unnamable. However, it should be noted here, that ZZ Packer does not suggest what this ominous unnamable thing is, except perhaps the inevitable tension that results from “difference.” When the little white girls are actually confronted, the black girls discover that they are mentally handicapped, evoking the derogatory name “retarded” and suggesting an easy sort of turning-the-tables discrimination. Furthermore, the black girls are told that the white children are echolalic, which means they say whatever they hear, like an echo.

The story thus ends as a sort of cautionary fable about prejudice and about how older generations pass down racial intolerance. Although the young African Americans are hard to resist with their little girl street-wise talk, they are really middle-class kids, posturing the way they have seen others do. Like the white girls, they are small children who say things they have heard others say. The story succeeds because it allows African American girls to make fun of white girls and talk tough about beating them up for using the “N” word, but since they are only small children at summer camp, it is all within a harmless, comic context. It pleases readers that the discrimination tables get an O. Henry turn and that the story ends with a simple moralistic message about prejudice.

I have spent considerable time talking about an early ZZ Packer story because I don’t have a lot to say about the piece entitled “Dayward” in the 20 Under 40 New Yorker 2010 special issue. Packer has been working for several years on a novel about Reconstruction and the African American Buffalo soldiers. I guess “Dayward” is an early chapter in this book and that Lazarus will “rise” up later on as one of those soldiers. I suspect there will be more about racial prejudice in this historical novel, for in this “chapter,” we have a classic chase scene right out of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with the runaways being sent up a tree instead of across the ice, the hounds on the scent (one twist on this scenario is that the two children are not runaways, but freed, being chased just out of meanness). The central scene, where Lazarus rams his fist down a dog’s throat to choke it to death, results in his being maimed, perhaps permanently. The piece ends with Lazarus and Mary Celeste’s arrival at their safe haven destination, where we await the next chapter of their reconstruction adventure.

The writing is functional—a combination of the literary and the ordinary, e.g.: “saying stuff that Lazarus had never before heard in his natural-born life.” “Lazarus had to prize her fingers from where she clawed at Minnie’s door.” “Lazarus might well have been wearing a loincloth instead of trousers.” In my opinion, either because of the shift in genre or the shift in subject matter, ZZ Packer’s writing here is a falling away from her earlier, more focused, work in the short story.

“Twins,” C.E. Morgan

Morgan has already made it clear in a brief interview that this is a section from a novel she is working on, which is concerned with, to use her term, “race relations.” I have not read Morgan’s work before, and I know little about her. She has a B.A. degree from Berea College in Kentucky, a tucked-away little town with which I am familiar. She also has an M.A. in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School. Her first novel, All the Living, was published in 2009 to a few decent reviews.

Morgan’s prose is more studied than ZZ Packer’s, sometimes a little too studied. For example: this description of Cincinnati, another town with which I am familiar:

“A queen rising on seven hills over her Tiber, forming the circlet of a crown. A jagged cityscape of steel and brick and glass, with its own bright nightless burn and, beyond it, the fretful, historical amplitude of Kentucky, that netherworld. This was Cincinnati—the capital of pork, the first truly American city….”

Since “Twins” s a self-proclaimed section from a novel, and my interest is in the short story, I have little say about it. I reckon, since the focus is on twin boys—one black and one white, called by a group of girls, “the Oreo babies”--the story will use this as a metaphor of both union and conflict in the chapters to come. I may read Morgan’s first novel, but only because it takes place in Kentucky, my home state, on a tobacco farm. I probably won’t read the new novel. I probably won’t read ZZ Packer’s new novel either.

But then, what the hell! As many of you know, I only read novels when I just can’t help myself. I recently pulled a water-wrinkled paperback copy of Alistair Macleod’s novel No Great Mischief (1999) down from my shelf. I bought it several years ago at a little bookstore just off the Liffy in Dublin. After having a wee chat about Scotch vs. Irish whiskey with MacLeod in Toronto last month, I felt I owed it to him to read it. MacLeod said he had several bottles of top shelf Scotch in his home, expensive stuff that folks had given him at readings and such, but that he felt they were just too good for him to drink, so he drinks the bottom shelf stuff instead. I understood that. I have a bottle of Irish whiskey that a student friend gave me several years ago, which cost about $250.00. It rests in a polished oak box with brass hinges, unopened. Bushmills and Jameson are good enough for me.

On numerous special occasions over the past ten years, I have said I would open it and share it with family and friends—at my retirement, at my daughter’s wedding, on my 65th birthday, etc. But every time, something happens that prevents it. I have extracted promises that my ashes will be buried in the old family graveyard in Eastern Kentucky in that box. But I reckon I have to drink the whiskey first. I have some apprehensions, I suppose about seeing that box sitting up there on the shelf empty, waiting. God willing, however, there will be special occasions in the future to drain the bottle dry.

Forgive the little personal aside. It’s an old man’s privilege.


Anonymous said...

Really enjoy your comments. Always nice to compare and contrast my reactions to someone else's (very educated) readings. Hope you do all the 20 under 40. Thank you.

By the way, would be curious to see what you thought of the pieces by Rivka Galchen, Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Safran Foer.

Charles E. May said...

Good to hear from you. I plan to do a blog entry on the Galchen, Krauss and Foer this week.

Rebecca Koffman said...

It's always a treat to read your essays here. I just read James Lasdun's It's Beginning to Hurt and wonder what you thought of that collection.

Charles E. May said...

Hi, Rebecca, I am reading Lasdun's book now and am enjoying it. I will have a blog on It's Beginning to Hurt in a few days. Thanks for reading my essays.

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