Tuesday, March 30

Considering Rebecca Curtis' “Twenty Grand and Other Tales of Love and Money”

I've read through most of the stories in Rebecca Curtis' debut collection twice, and I'm still not sure what I think of them.

There are some stories I absolutely hate, mostly those with political motives. That hasn't changed. “The Near-Son” and “The Wolf at the Door” are foremost among that lot. “The Near-Son” refers to an abortion committed in the very first line of the story. “The Wolf at the Door” is a heavy-handed metaphor for a man asking a woman for her phone number and, in likelihood, on a date. Both, I suppose, are attempts to show the woman's perspective in these more-or-less common situations, the sense of oppression from all sides, no support from family, no support from friends, but the stories are hamstrung by how ridiculously unlikable every character in them is and how totally unable they are able to generate any feelings of sympathy. The unemployed boyfriend of “Near-Son” who subsists entirely on the earnings of his girlfriend and incites a crowd at a wedding reception is the ostensible villain against the rational woman narrator who knows she cannot support both him and a baby and argues against his supernatural feelings at the time of the child's death. Yet she has no compassion for anyone in the story and comes off as entirely cold. The titular wolf is physically trying to force his way in the narrator's home in “The Wolf at the Door,” but the woman desperately asks for “a long knife” to fight him back.

Perhaps Curtis is trying to create some distance for audience by so elevating the stakes in these stories beyond anything they might personally have experienced, but in the process, the characters become clowns and entirely despicable and lose the ability to affect me in any way.

Contrast this with most every other story in the collection where the narrators, all women, have families and friends, jobs and hobbies. They are round and real. They may still not be likable or sympathetic, but they find themselves in more honest situations and react in ways I can understand. Take “Summer, with Twins,” one of my favorites. Like “The Wolf,” it too includes an attempted relationship that can only really be called exploitative, only this time it's the owner of the restaurant the narrator waitresses at instead of a wolf. Again, others look on, fully aware of what it happening but passive. In “Summer,” it's the Serrano twins and not the sister. Yet “Summer” is far better for developing its characters, the twins in particular. In just twenty-three pages, she crafts two characters in better detail than some novels manage in hundreds of pages.

“All I know is this, Jean said: Dina has no right to yell at us.

“She had a point though, I said, about us taking her dinners.

“I'm sorry, Jessica said, but I don't think getting your dinner late is a big deal. Whenever I have to wait for my food, it tastes more delicious!”

Consider another favorite in the collection, “The Witches.” It does more than a make a political point. It creates characters and situations specific and detailed. There is a stepfather whose only pride is his twenty-foot yacht. There is Dirk Drew, the boyfriend of a childhood friend. “...[E]very spring one beautiful girl fell in love with him before leaving him for someone else.” There is the senior prom at the yacht club. There are the Broads and Witches. And despite all of these details, Curtis creates a story with greater universality than either “Near-Son” or “Wolf” and their fairy-tale trappings.

More than any other author I am familiar, Curtis resembles Raymond Carver. Not in language, certainly. Where Carver is direct and simple, Curtis meanders and experiments with interruptions and asides and details. It's the themes they return to where the parallel really lies. Curtis' characters are working class, and like Carver, their first concerns are their relationships and jobs. Like the subtitle says, these are “tales of love and money.”

I think this comparison actually does a fair amount to reveal my problems with Curtis. Carver's stories may be as unrelentingly depressing in the how many of them come to divorce, death and other messy endings, but there is a sense of redemption in them as they try to figure out what it all means. In Curtis, it's a steady stream of girls wanting the wrong men, women rejecting men who deserve it, friends betraying friends, family disappointing family and so forth.

I don't intend to suggest that all stories need to have happy endings because they certainly don't. The trouble is when all thirteen stories in the collection leave you with an enduring disappointment in all humanity, if not outright hatred, it becomes a little much. Probably not best to read the collection straight through, to temper it with little breaks of most anything else.

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