by N. West Moss
Leapfrog Press (160 pages, May 2017)
Reviewed by Clifford Garstang
The eleven stories that make up N. West Moss’s fine debut collection are linked by both their connection to New York City’s Bryant Park and their nuanced exploration of the many facets of loss.
We’re introduced to the park in the book’s sprawling opening story, “Omeer’s Mangoes.” Omeer is an immigrant from Iran who is proud of his position as the doorman of an apartment building that overlooks the park. He watches skeptically as the park is redeveloped from a dangerous haven for drug addicts and prostitutes into an improbable, vibrant community asset. And along with the park, Omeer’s own life undergoes a change for the better. He marries, he has a son, he’s promoted, and life is good. But then fortunes change and Omeer begins to deal with loss—his father dies, his wife and son pull away—which he does by seeking comfort in the park that he has come to love.
Several of the book’s stories involve a woman whose father has died or is otherwise slipping away from her. There is humor in “Sky Blue Haven,” in which one of the residents of the Bryant Park apartment building is moved to a nursing home after a fall. When his daughter comes to visit, it’s clear that he suffers from dementia (he keeps calling his wife a Nazi), made all the more poignant by his anxious apologies during moments of lucidity. Similarly, the protagonists of “Spring Peepers,” “Dad Died,” and “Next Time” are coping with the loss of their fathers, one by ruminating on the problems of aging, one by recalling the most endearing moments of her relationship with her father, one by focusing on the details of settling her father’s estate while attempting to reclaim her past.
But loss haunts other stories, as well. In “The Absence of Sound,” the protagonist discovers that his cat has died when he misses the sound of her claws on his hardwood floors. In a stunning moment, he connects this absence of sound with 9/11 when the subways stopped running beneath the library where he works. The protagonist of “Dubonnet” is an older woman still coping with the death of her husband, who now is faced with the loss of her home and freedom. She also finds comfort in the Bryant Park, accompanied by her plastic-wrapped valuables. “Milagro” is rife with loss: Benny has lost his teeth and rarely opens his mouth to speak, even when he gets false teeth because he considers them too white; when his wife leaves him, despite the new teeth, his friend Belinda gives him a chicken to keep him company; and when Belinda dies, Benny takes her dog and the two of them mourn the loss together.
Besides loss, several of the stories deal with difficult relationships. In “Patience and Fortitude,” a young woman realizes that her long-distance relationship is over when she calls her boyfriend and a woman answers. She seeks solace by the statue of Gertrude Stein in the Bryant Park. In “Beautiful Mom,” a young girl sees her mother, a model, for the first time since she walked out on the family, and their conversation is understandably strained. This girl, too, leans on the statue of Stein. In “Lucky Cat,” a college student falls for the chef in the restaurant where she works, but quickly discovers he’s not interested in a relationship. Again, Omeer in “Omeer’s Mangoes” can’t make his marriage work, and neither can Benny in “Milagro.”
Place is frequently employed as a linking mechanism in story collections, from Winesburg, Ohio and The Dubliners, to Knockemstiff and Later, at the Bar. Here, Bryant Park is used particularly effectively, because the place has much the same effect on the people who experience it. Its renaissance not only rescues the neighborhood, it provides a refuge to those who live and work in its shadow. Plus, it’s an expanding symbol—not only a park, with greenery and walking paths and benches, but also a place with regular classical music performances, public art, chess, a bar, and, as the title of the book suggests, a subway stop, connecting it to all of New York.
The stories themselves are mostly quiet, without melodramatic conflict. They are about inner demons, rather than external villains, and because of this they are highly relatable. On the whole, the collection is an intimate portrait of real people, characters bound by the park.