By: Susan Perabo
Hardcover: 208 pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (February 16, 2016)
Reviewed by: Vickie Fang
Years ago, I read advice for aspiring writers. “Know your characters!” the advice-giver instructed. “If someone asks you whether or not they like green beans, you better be able to tell them the answer!” To my mind this little nugget of wisdom encapsulated all that was wrong with a pervasive trend in modern writing: too much focus on the mundane, character description through a list of not-very-distinctive traits rather than feelings or actions. Worst of all, it was a mind set that led to static writing, inviting the reader to observe the minutia rather than find out what happens. Well, possibly Perabo knows whether her characters like green beans, but if so, she doesn’t bother the rest of us with the news. She gets right to the heart of her characters’ rapidly changing lives. To read her work is to make a journey — sometimes an exhilarating leap.
In The Payoff, the leap comes much too soon for two elementary school girls who see their art teacher having sex with their principal in a deserted classroom. “Learn anything?” One of their fathers asks at dinner. His daughter thinks, I had learned what a blowjob (or BJ, as Louise told me on the phone before dinner) looked like. I had learned that men don’t actually need to remove their underpants to have sex.
The learning doesn’t stop for these girls because they do a lot more than sit around reflecting on what just happened. They write notes blackmailing their principal and enclose them in envelopes that they’ve addressed with letters torn out of the library’s copies of Ranger Rick. The results are hilarious — a rich vein of wicked humor courses through these stories — and they are deeply discomfiting as well. Adult awareness is forced on one of the young girls and with it the certainty that no one, not even her parents, can make sense of it. Even the doddering substitute math teacher is transformed.
Mrs. Payne, a pain in the butt, a punch line to the joke of every fifth grader. Yesterday she’d been as flat and clear as a pane of glass. Today I gazed through her sagging breasts and jowls and saw her as a young woman, as young as Ms. McDaniel, a mystery slipping out of her nightgown and into the arms of her beloved.
In this story time has moved too quickly for the young protagonist. Propelled into an awareness of the adult lives around her, she is left isolated and deeply unsettled. We are aware of time’s progress in most of these stories. It rushes forward, sometimes, as in The Payoff, at a dizzying speed, or it slows down until people look out at the rest of the world in panic, realizing that they’ve become stranded. Sometimes the characters have to fight to get out of the way of time, and sometimes they have to invent more time when it ends too abruptly. In A Proper Burial, a divorced man who has attempted to stop time, even to the point of putting his dead dog in the freezer, starts it moving again and begins to reconnect with the world around him.
Simon looked at the dog. Her fur was wet now, slick like after a bath. She looked like herself again, and he was sorry he’d kept her down there so long, becoming all the things she wasn’t — cold and hard, freakish, a memory of another life, a bad joke. She was just a dog, a friendly brown dog, whom he’d untied from a post in the middle of the night, and taken in, and loved.
Time ends too quickly for one character in the Pushcart Prize-winning Shelter and starts up again, very late in life for another, as if a spark from a bonfire that was in the process of being extinguished had landed on a waiting mound of tinder. Bizarre and fascinating acts pull us in to stories about the most fundamental aspects of life: love, connection, self preservation, the need to make a difference, the inevitability of change. This is a very stirring book, as rich and original as anything I’ve read in a long time.
Read an interview with the author here.