Reviewed by Vickie Fang
The fall edition of The Boulevard has an exceptional line up of short stories by writers ranging from the famed Joyce Carol Oates and Alice Hoffman to new comers with great careers still ahead of them. As is very common with literary magazines, each story features a main character who is very young, chronologically or emotionally. One way to examine these stories, then, is to think about whether the “child” is able to surmount the traumas the author has thrown his way so that the story has an “open” ending with some vision of a changing future in sight or whether the future is fundamentally closed. And while the prognosis is often (though not always) quite grim, the range of approaches these writers take — philosophical, impressionistic, suspenseful, surreal — makes for a fascinating and varied collection of work.
Of the children who have some hope of survival, I was most touched by Mekonnen from the eponymous Mekonnen, aka Huey Freakin’ Newton. Written by Meron Hadero, an Ethiopian immigrant herself, Mekonnen thoughtfully and subtly explores race through the eyes of an immigrant boy growing up in New York. Hadero manages to include adults who consider themselves yellow or red members of the complex tribal system of Ethiopia and who are flummoxed when told that everyone from Africa is black. She includes white children who only realize that they are racially segregated when a black child joins their class, and she shows us black children who band together to promote their own prideful identity and whose attempts at unity sometimes dissolve into anger and disdain. As one boy puts it, “Things that wash up on the Coney Island shore: nasty hypodermic needles, oil from tanker spills, and little boatfuls of Koreans set to storm my block.” Minutes later, he punches the Ethiopian boy who had been his friend.
So much is written about race today, and if what I have seen on social media is any indication, most of it is very badly written. One “side” of the issue fills the internet (and the airwaves) with embarrassingly defensive and dishonest claims of a post racial America or even widespread white victimhood. Meanwhile, gleefully self righteous social justice commentators vie with each to prove their moral superiority by creating ever more torturous tests of ideological purity. In this poisoned atmosphere, Hadero creates real, three dimensional people, puts them in situations without easy solutions, and lets us feel their anger, their fear, and their insistence on their own ideas of proper behavior.
Her story is very carefully observed, and when the son thinks of his father it is with honest and sympathetic curiosity. “I wonder how much pain he had escaped by avoiding these harsh American lessons about race until he was older and maybe better able to distance himself from them, or on the other hand, how much more difficult was it for him to confront this context so late in life, when perhaps the insults were more shocking and unexpected, damaged all the more?” The story itself invites the same level of interest and empathy for everyone struggling with these difficult questions. The contributors’ section of Boulevard, lists Hadero’s ivy league degrees and multiple fellowships at prestigious writers’ retreats, but no publications. I am reminded of Tom Harding who earned his MFA at Iowa and taught writing for years at MIT before publishing his first book, the Pulitzer Prize winning Tinkers, and i am looking forward to Hadero’s first major publication.
While the hero of Makonnen is forced to separate, at least somewhat, from his parents to create his own identity, the narrator of Alice Hoffman’s Learning to Lie must separate from her mother completely in order to survive at all. What makes this story particularly compelling is that it begins with her mother as a young woman and shows her appealing wildness, physical beauty, and vulnerability. We care for her, as her daughter must have at first, but we are told early on that learning that the mother was a liar saved her daughter’s life. Learning to Lie is an exciting story of a hardship, escape, and uncertain future as a girl becomes her mother in order to get away from her.
Lila, the central character in Joyce Carol Oates’ The Nice Girl keeps telling us that she’s not really nice at all, and it turns out that she was telling the truth. Still, we feel for this bright, high achieving girl whose parents are completely enmeshed in her older sister’s disfunction. Lila sees a lifetime of hard work ahead of her and a life time of being ignored by her parents exactly because her success makes it possible for them to focus on her sister. This girl also separates in anger, but it is from her damaged sister, not her overwhelmed parents. Determined, emotionally stunted, and utterly believable, she is crafting her own narrow pathway to the future.
Two of the stories in which the child-like main character is unable to move forward experiment with moving and surreal forms of narration. The Disappearance of J. Frank Donaldson, written by Courtney Sender, and the winner of The Boulevard’s Emerging Writer contest, is a story of looking for connection in all the wrong the ways. The narrator, who is a young teaching assistant, feels deeply for his students. “Sometimes my excess love feels like a backed-up pipe inside me me. . . So I pinhole-pick it to receive the pressure, and I don’t tell my classes that they are the places I let my love leak.” Still, we never see a relationship with these students. He tries to teach them empathy first by having them eavesdrop on strangers and then transcribe the conversations and then by having them tie themselves to each other. He tries to do good works not by engaging with someone he knows or volunteering for a charity, but by hanging around public areas, hoping to be of service to a passing tourist. Throughout the story he obsesses over the disappearance of a young man he has never met. First he pretends that he and the man were classmates; increasingly he pretends that they are the same person. The ending is a touching image of a clueless older couple and their damaged son who cannot let go of his inchoate longings and cannot take hold of the actual world around him.
Colin Fleming’s Dunes under Sand is even more adventurous and experimental. Written in the second person, it at first seems to read like a conversation, but that’s not what it is, at least not in the conventional sense of the word. Instead, it follows the stops and starts of one man’s chaotic thinking as he tries to justify the role he played in his own divorce. It is at many points humorous, “Chased off the lawn. By someone else. Called that one right. The fable of the blind pig and the acorn. Pig surely viewed the acorn more favorably than I did that aunt.” It also frequently hints at violence, though with the continual rationalization that what the character feels on the inside is very different from his outside behavior. In its own way, Dunes is a remarkably realistic story. To read it is to be sucked into the man’s intensity, his swirling thoughts, his need for you to believe in him, while realizing, with something of a jolt at the end, that the dunes within him are the same ugly mounds everyone else saw on his surface.
Bayard Godsave’s Roughneck Confesses is a much more straight forward story, though it does make use of a narrator who is unreliable to the extent of being reluctant to tell some painful truths. Gadsave deftly peels back the layers of his the man’s story until we get to his full confession. The roughneck, who works on oil rigs in far flung regions, registers much of the world the way a child does, with little understanding or commentary. In Qatar, “The only whores were men, and German tourists skied nude on a snow-covered hill inside a skyscraper that smelled faintly of orange peels.” He shows no more understanding of why his affair with Delores, who was delightfully piggish in bed, came to an end, but his longing for her is unmistakable. Eventually this longing leads him to “grab for her” in a bar. Godsave writes:
The world takes so much from a man until in that last indignity he tries to take
back a little of what is his, like a snake biting uselessly at a shovel blade that’s broken his back.
From their perspective, the men who escorted me from that place, who took me out from behind the bar and beat me nearly senseless under the hot exhaust from the kitchen’s fryer hoods, I’d given them no choice. . . . They left me balled up on my side, and I stayed that way for a while before slowly uncurling myself like something prehistoric and segmented and rolling over onto my back. There were no stars in the sky for all the lights, and whatever essential property is gleaned from chicken when it’s breaded and fried washed over me in sickening waves.