Friday, June 15, 2012

Frank O'Connor Award Shortlist: 2012--Lucia Perillo's Happiness is a Chemical in the Brain


Lucia Perillo, Happiness is a Chemical in the Brain.  W. W. Norton.

I have always tried to be alert about what governs my reaction to a new story I read:  Do I like, or not like, a story for personal reasons, or do I like, or not like, a story for critical reasons?

For example, when I read the first paragraph of the first story—“Bad Boy Number Seventeen”— in Lucia Perillo’s collection, I reacted negatively to the narrator/central character, who is attracted to “bad boys,” but I liked the language she uses to describe those boys: “Coming, they walk with their shoulders back like they’ve got a raw egg tucked inside each armpit, and they let their legs lead them.  Going, you can count on the fact that their butts will cast no shadow on those lean, long legs.”

This was my experience with most of the stories.  I did not particularly like the central female characters, but I liked the language Perillo gives them.  The characters were self-indulgent, but the writing certainly was not.  This creates a particular dilemma for me when, as is often the case in these stories, the story is written in first person, and I am torn between the meaningless behavior of the character and the nicely turned phrases that come out of her mouth. 

When you see that the author of Happiness is a Chemical in the Brain is a poet, and a Pulitzer Prize nominated poet at that, and that she has won one of those so-called “genius” MacArthur Awards, you may have some expectations of lyric language as you settle in.  But these are not poetic stories, either for their lyric language or their tightly unified structured. The emphasis is on a certain kind of blue-collar woman with a voice that moves easily between educated eloquence and rough talking slang--a fairly familiar persona in much modern fiction--the female equivalent of the clich√© ideal male—a truck driver who is also a poet.

The central character of the first story goes through several Bad Boys, beginning with Number One when she was a high school freshman, who had her doing his pre-algebra problems while he “worked on the science of breaking-and-entering,” and moving through Number Eight who tattooed a snake on her hand and arm that made job interviews problematic.  She decides not to tell us about numbers Nine through Sixteen, moving quickly on to Seventeen.

The narrator’s mother and older Down syndrome sister, Louisa, live in a trailer after her father left them.  The mother’s luck with new men is not much better than her daughter’s: “capital-L Losers—we’re talking bankruptcy and Thorazine.”

The narrator meets Number Seventeen in a bar, but he soon disappears and leaves her with a dog because his wife is allergic to it.  Louisa loves the dog, and the story ends with the narrator watching the two of them trot off down a field together. She thinks about warning her sister about this doggy Bad Boy, but says she will think she is trying to keep him for her own private thrill: “The thrill of being smashed into and crashing, when he knocks her down and they go rolling through the weeds”—an obvious reference to her own inexplicable attraction to Bad Boys.

Near the end of the collection, Perillo includes two more stories about this narrator, her mother, and sister. (I’m not sure why she did not link them together in the same place.)  In the second Louisa story, “St. Jude in Persia,” the narrator is just out of rehab.  The focus here is mostly on the mother, who is still enraged at her husband for leaving her with another woman.  The narrator, in her usual, tough/snappy tone, says, “My mother may be short and squat, a victim of too many shortbreads with her tea, but she’s still not a woman you want to go up against when she’s got a bee in her bonnet and a gun in her hands.”  The Mother has a road rage encounter with her ex and his girlfriend, goes after his horse with a rifle, and tackles the barn with a backhoe—all of which the narrator describes in her usual comic/clever way.

In “Late in the Realm,” the third Louisa story, and the final story in the collection, the narrator begins “doing the deed” with a man called Doctor Doodle.  Even more than in the other two stories, here, the narrator’s tough-talking voice and poetic sensibility mesh emphatically. Doctor Doodle likes to quote poetry, reciting passages from William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens’ “Idea of Order at Key West”—e.g.: “The lights of the fishing boats at anchor mastered the night and portioned out the sea.” The story and the collection ends with what the narrator calls a poem—a celebration of energy in a boat:  “Louisa lets out a scream of joy that rises above the engine noise, as the Doctor yells for me to give it everything I’ve got”—the narrator’s usual careless, full-speed ahead, attitude.  In all three stories, it is supposed to be ironic and sweet that the Down syndrome Louisa is the only character who seems blissfully happy with her life.

Most of the stories in this collection focus on women who are always hooking up with Bad Boys—if not the narrator, then a mother, a sister, a friend.  For example, although “Big Dot Day” is ostensibly about a boy named Arnie, his mother governs his experience by going from one man to another--referred to primarily as “this guy” or “the last guy.” Arnie knows the new guy’s name is Jay, but the old guy’s name was Ray, and he fears mixing them up, for they are “interchangeable:  same boys—long-armed, short, and barrel-chested—but with different heads.” The third person narrator of this story sounds very much like the poetic/trailer trash female voice of the first-person stories, e.g.: “The new guy snored like a car ignition trying to catch, holding out the possibility of something about to happen.”

The title, “Big Dot Day,” is evoked when Arnie picks up a tide table, which promisingly states on the front cover: “The bigger the dot the better the fishing.”  He looks through the pages and sees that today is supposed to be a “big-dot day.”  He hopes the new guy, who has talked a lot about fishing, will take him, but the mother and the new guy are flopping around in the bathtub “like a couple of seals”; so he goes out on the motel balcony and practices his casting with a piece of pie on the hook. 

When a gull swallows the pie, Arnie reels him in; he tries to hypnotize the gull with his mother’s earrings as she screams in the bathroom, finally grabbing the bird under his armpit and pulling out the hook: “Then came the best part, when Arnie took the bird out to the balcony and watched it fly off like a braggart, as if this were all part of a plan the bird had itself dreamed up.”  When the mother and the new guy come out of the bathroom and find out he has caught a bird, the mother has a grin on her face, a stunned look “as if she’d just been knocked down by a truck.”  She then provides the thematic conclusion of the story:  “See how the magic works? You come to the end of the earth and then you catch a bird.”  As she holds Arnie, she says, “It’s all part of the plan: movement, stasis.  Where else could this have happened?”  The thematic conclusion is deftly undercut when Arnie asks again if Jay will take him fishing and once again he puts the boy off.  The mother holds Arnie and says, “He’s right, Ray… A promise is a promise.” “It’s Jay,” said the new guy, lightning a cigarette.”

“Doctor Vicks” introduces a woman who is an addict and adrift. The title refers to Vicks’ cough syrup, which the woman, trying to give up alcohol, drinks by the six-pack.  Her husband has talked her into moving out into the woods because her son is getting into trouble in the city, but she suspects that the husband is concealing some secret.  The teenage boy continues to vandalize houses with a friend.  She watches him and his friend standing on a narrow trestle as the train thunders past them at close range. She buys an expensive vacuum cleaner from a travelling salesman because she sees a hole in his shoe is resigns herself to doing what she can to save him: "Forty-five dollars a month is not much, after all.  And cleaning has always held your interest.” The story ends when a vacuum cleaner saleswoman comes to the house to give a demonstration.  The saleswoman is allowed to give the thematic final word, noting she could not live out here alone: “Too much space with nothing here, and I’d always be feeling like it was up to me to fill it up.” Although I get a bit tired of the same lost, addict, female character, Perillo’s language is hard to resist.

“Report from the Trenches” begins with a fight between a man and a woman; when Jill, friend, comes in after the man leaves and asks what the fight was about this time, the central character replies, “You mean what’s the name this time?”—once again reminding us of the serial Bad Boy theme.  The friend Jill has the clever tough-talking voice this time: “My brain was never in the same time zone as the other parts of my body below my neck.”  She tells a story about robbing a mini mart with some bad boys, as the narrator hears her baby upstairs crying “in a language that I do not speak”; it bypasses her brain, she says, and goes straight to her glands “producing two wet spots on the front of my blouse.”

In one of her Bad Boy stories, Jill describes seeing a girl through a pool hall door wearing a slinky green dress and one of those filmy Amish hats; a man’s hand runs up her leg; the girl is smoking a cigarette looking like she has been standing there all her life, “waiting for someone like me to come along.”  When the narrator asks Jill how the girl fits in, she says, in the last line of the story, “I just think of her often is all.”  Perillo is quite deft at these concluding metaphoric images, often combining a woman being pulled toward dangerous adventures while being tethered to domestic life.

“A Ghost Story” establishes the central metaphor of the kind of man who attract these women: a man the central character, referred to as “the girl,” describes as a ghost, noting that while sometimes you can “banish the physical vessels in which these ghosts travel, the psychic border skirmishes will continue on forever.”  After “the girl” is picked up by a man in a convertible while working as a flagger on the highway, she goes to a motel and has sex with him.  The third person voice of the story identifies herself self reflexively: “On the first weekend they spent together—don’t worry, there are only two weekends in this story.  It’ll be over soon.”  She describes the man as “like the phantom that appears in those hitchhiker/truck driver stories” who has died a long time ago, but leaves a piece of evidence, like a baseball cap to prove the visitation.  The story ends years later, when the central character, who has become a lawyer, discovers a photo on an old roll of film of her and the man.  She says even though she is the one in the filmy shirt, he is the one who is insubstantial, “as if at any moment he might turn into smoke.  And when he does, I’ll make a ninety-degree turn and walk right through him.  And my solidness will churn whatever’s left of him to wisps.”  This is one of the few stories in which the central female character manages to kick the habit of hooking up with ghost bad boys.

“Cavalcade of the Old West” is the most emphatic story about the collection’s central theme of carelessly seizing the day.  Two young sisters, Stella and Ginny, go to a geek show at the fair called Cavalcade of the Old West.  Stella has a sexual encounter with the Salmon boy, an armless, legless black man of indeterminate years who wears a satin shirt that make his stumps look like fins.  Years later, Stella tells Ginny that when she is ninety years old and peeing in a bedpan, she will always remember her for her night spent with the Salmon boy at age fourteen. “When it comes to you, I’ll be fourteen forever.  And how much would other people give for that, unh?  To be fourteen forever.  If I could bottle that, I’d make a mint.”  Stella wonders why it is that someone you love may dry up and blow away, whereas ten minutes with the Salmon Boy is something that she will never forget.

In “Anyone Else But Me,” Ruth, fifty-six, is enrolled in the senior citizen’s exercise group.  Prairie Rose, her daughter, works for the Miracle Management Response Team, whose job is to oversee the image of the Virgin Mary in dark stains running down a concrete seawall.  She often moves back in with her mother and sleeps on a futon in a walk-in closet in Ruth’s apartment. When young, Ruth was a typical female loser; when she got pregnant with Prairie Rose, she headed west and when she reached the ocean, she tossed a coin and made a right-hand turn, ending up on Puget Sound.  At the end of the story, Prairie Rose is in the closet, using her laptop to try and find out who her father is. The final image has Ruth crowded in the closet with Prairie Rose looking at a gray blob of a man’s face on the computer: “They kneel on the floor, peering at the image.  And finally, when the face is all there, Prairie Rose turns to her mother and asks: ‘Well, what do you think, Ma? Is that him?’”

One reviewer says that Perillo “strikes a glorious balance between wryly intelligent prose and emotional force, recalling Alice Munro at her best.”   Although these are clever stories and for the most part well-written and well-wrought, I don’t think so.  Alice Munro at her best has a more penetrating sense of the multiform mysteries of what motivates us.

The reviewer in the San Francisco Chronicle says: “Fans of Raymond Carver will enjoy Perillo’s mucky, Kmart realism. I don’t think so; Carver’s character’s have more range than Perillo’s; and I am not sure I know what the catch phrase “Kmart realism” really means.  The only Carver connection the reviewer calls to mind is that one Perillo story features a vacuum cleaner salesman.

Adam Plunkett in the New York Times is more perceptive: “With some exception, Happiness is full of straightforward sentences in straightforward narratives, as you might expect from someone who understands the mechanics of storytelling but hasn’t’ yet written much fiction.”  He also says some characters have a bizarre lack of empathy or ambition or self-awareness “that all hint at a very bright author unsure of how to dumb herself down.”

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