Albany, NY: Shade Mountain Press. 148 pp. $16.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)
“Working class fiction” has long occupied a distinctive subcategory of American literature, with Russell Banks, Dorothy Allison, and Sherman Alexie crafting some of the most resonant contemporary works, following their mid-twentieth century forebears: Raymond Carver, Grace Paley, and Tillie Olsen, to name a few. The nine stories contained in Robin Parks’s debut collection, Egg Heaven, make for a welcome addition to this milieu and refreshingly expound upon blue collar themes. Parks, winner of the Raymond Carver Short Story Award, sets each story in a particular restaurant at or near Long Beach, California, where she spent most of her twenties waiting tables. The characters and locales easily dip in and out, weaving a powerful portrait of the inhabitants and place. Although Parks’s fiction here and there nods in homage to Carver’s, Egg Heaven illuminates a world entirely its own, its authenticity built upon the subtle, vital gesture.
“I wonder if she’s one of those girls who talked her way into the job, you know, lied about some experience in some other town with streets like Main and Broadway,” says Sunny, the narrator of “Floating By.” “Old Town Café on Main Street. How many of those are there? Zillions, I bet.” As with many of Parks’s characters’ voices, Sunny’s speech is straightforward but hardly short on insight. Six of the nine stories center on women, and the ache of women who are lost, perpetually at loose ends marks an overriding theme. Later in the story, Sunny and a new waitress, the colorful, itinerant Zappa, stroll down Long Beach by the Queen Mary. Struggling to rekindle a relationship with her distant son, Sunny has sought out a friendship with her young coworker. Zappa observes, “‘There’s poor people, begging people, crazies everywhere, Sunny. Why stick around a sad place like this?’ ‘Is it sad?’” Sunny replies. There’s no strain here, no evidence of an author conjuring an experience beyond her purview, even as Parks takes on varying ages, genders, and sexual preferences via her protagonists. Consider this passage from “MarDel’s Diner,” told from the point of view of Alex, who is pining after Laura. As a couple they were once regulars at the diner owned by Mary and Dell.
Laura, it turned out, was plagued by mistrust, mostly because of other men who had met Laura long before they could understand how lucky they were. Alex understood them, which made Laura nervous. Why do you condone them, she would cry, how they treated me? Alex had a hard time explaining himself, that he hated that anyone had ever hurt her, but that she should understand they were boys, they were busy making every single action of their day, every encounter, a proving ground. He himself had been the same, before Laura came into his life. But Laura would shake her head at this, walk stiffly from the room. Alex would call after her, Laura, look at me, I am a man with the capacity to say yes, forever, to another human being .
Whether she’s capturing actual or summarized speech, Parks skillfully taps into each character’s plain-spoken truths. Here is the stripped away, strike-for-the-jugular prose style of Daniel Woodrell. The wisdom of Parks’s stories isn’t laid out in pithy thematic passages or loaded, repetitive imagery, but felt—on the strength of bare actions and gestures.
We meet Laura in the story “Breakfast,” named for the nondescript café where she’s been waitressing and where her mother, a schizophrenic vagrant, frequented until her disappearance. In seeking to find out what happened to her mother, Laura finds unsettling answers in medical records. A recovering alcoholic, Laura buys bourbon, pours a glass and tinkers with it as she combs through the photos and notes, the tension palpable. We learn her mother died of lung cancer, or as Laura eloquently states, “She drowned in ash.” In this and other stories, Parks leaves us with a single gesture that washes back over all that’s happened before: “I push the glass away. The ice makes a tinkling sound, and the smell hovers, like smoke.” United by their weaknesses even across death, Laura and her mother share a pivotal moment. For now, at least, Laura triumphs and overcomes what her mother could not.
In “Delgado’s” and others, the restaurant provides respite for characters in conflict without taking center stage, its presence sound but inconspicuous. Yet whether her locales occupy the foreground or backdrop, the essential overriding effect that Parks curates is that of the constructed modern family. In these stories, the family one is born into can hardly be relied upon; rather, the individual, metaphysically if not literally orphaned, leans upon those he or she encounters within public spaces. These often commercial establishments supplant the traditional definition of home, in both the emotional and physical sense. Egg Heaven brings to light how in such places, our lives so often spill together—bosses, co-workers, and customers alike. So much of our lives play out in these easily overlooked but vital “third places” within communities, Parks reminds us— where would we be without them? We who, in turn, sweat and weep, meet and laugh, gripe and ache.