Los Angeles, CA: The Unnamed Press, 2016. 147 pages. $14.99.
Seldom—too seldom—do literary short stories make me laugh. In my nine-year tenure as series editor for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, now coming to a close, I have encountered mostly good collections of short stories (a fact that is pretty amazing) although I’ve noticed so many collections seem wary of smiling as if in fear that the superficial dental work of lightheartedness might disqualify them. Literary effort comes with pressed lips and a grimace, their pages seem to announce. These stories are earnest, the dreams they often recount in their initial pages soaked in grief and perspiration. But there is a difference between seriousness of purpose and gravitas of presentation. You don’t need to be somber to get your most weighty points across. I think of myself laughing out loud when I first encountered Karin Lin-Greenburg’s submission for the Flannery O’Connor. “Editorial Decisions,” her leadoff story from Faulty Predictions (the 2013 co-winner), started out as high entertainment but has haunted me since. In this short short, high school lit mag editors berate their lesser classmates for not understanding the multiple purposes of the semicolon, only to have a smarter, more talented victim of their ridicule bring a gun to school with horrifying results. Humor was the spoonful of sugar that allowed this story to go down. Otherwise, it would have been another well-written lecture on bullying.
The hundreds of collections I’ve read may have been short on dimples, but the writer’s level of devotion to craft has always been impressive. Hardly a typo to be seen, much less an unintentional grammatical error or solecism, or a sloppy description. The manuscripts bespeak years of polish. Put another more depressing way, they tell of years of rejection, years of going back and revising. Revising and polishing. Adding new stories. Revising and polishing them.
Long gone are the days when authors would publish a short story collection the way musicians with one hit record would put out a vinyl LP with a couple of great songs and the rest fillers. Short story collections are now few and far between the novels that publishing houses see as more rewarding, and they are built no longer around one or two stellar stories that received some attention. Short story writers have plenty of time to stack their collections with a slew of top-notch narratives.
Picking a winner for the Flannery O’Connor award was for me one-half exhilaration for a career about to get jump-started, and one-half contrition for those wonderful unsung finalists who were now relegated back to Status: Unpublished. Another year ahead for them, maybe more years, of submitting to literary journals and publishers and competitions.
Perhaps it is the long habituation to rejection and the dogged determination in the face of that rejection that have erased the fun from so many stories. Perhaps a serious dedication evolved into just plain old seriousness. . . .
. . . because humor was in short supply each summer as I sat down to read the collections submitted to the Flannery O’Connor competition. The craft was evident and laudable, but so much of the fun was gone. And come on, although Flannery O’Connor herself schooled us with some serious nightmares, she also made sure to broadcast her amusement with the world. How about this opening line from “Good Country People”: Besides the neutral expression that she wore when she was alone, Mrs. Freeman had two others, forward and reverse, that she used for all her human dealings.
When you read that line, you laugh, you sit up straight, and you get ready.
Enter Debbie Graber’s collection, Kevin Kramer Starts on Monday, a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor award that has now found published life. The very first sentence of the collection could have come out of O’Connor herself: “Someone said that Gregg Fisher’s Pontiac Vibe was the filthiest car they had ever seen.”
The heart of Graber’s collection is the upscale white collar workplace. Just as O’Connor’s Deep South was a gold mine for her Catholic eye, Silicon Valley proves a similar ten-bagger stock for Graber, a writer whose sensibility and timing was honed by years of improv training at the famed Second City. In that regard, it is less O’Connor and more Catch-22’s Joseph Heller she calls to mind. I laughed just as hard at Graber’s opening story as I did many years earlier at Joseph Heller’s opening chapter in Something Happened, his 1974 blackly comedic novel about the businessman Bob Slocum.
Things have changed since 1974, however, and one of them is that twenty-four hour news shows and financial networks have revealed and eviscerated the excesses of the corporate world. The corporate world has already graciously parodied itself so that we don’t have to. It’s not enough these days for an author to lay the absurdity bare. It’s not enough simply to imagine a world where a businessman might run for president and rename the White House as a Tower bearing his name. In these tales Graber finds the scary place where Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impersonations ultimately leave us. That is to say, they are chiefly hilarious, but in the end they take a frightening snapshot of all of us—with a selfie stick, of course.
“Gregg Fisher’s Pontiac Vibe” is a fitting tale to usher in the collection since it echoes Homer’s catalogue of the ships in the Iliad (if Homer did stand-up and Iliad was the name of a start-up tech company). It seems that Gregg Fisher has abandoned his car in the employee parking lot. At first we are entertained by the cataloguing of the Jackson Pollock-like designs the “rivers of filth” made when they “flowed down the car’s roof” during rainfalls. This segues naturally into a discussion of Gregg Fisher’s commuter mug (also filthy) and Gregg Fisher’s filthy flimsy ponytail and how as the years passed “he probably had to use smaller scrunchies to get his thinning hair into a ponytail.” No one is quite sure about the precision of their memories—about the Pontiac, about the commuter mug, about Gregg Fisher himself who may or may not be sitting in his Pontiac as a corpse. Ultimately, this short short, with such a wide and hilarious target, could have rested on the fun it generated, but its arrow was aimed at a different vulnerable heel: us, and the way we turn others into our own personal joke machine in order to avoid that dreaded social disease of empathy. When Gregg Fisher’s ponytail is found on the hood of the Pontiac, “cut off above the scrunchie, lying in a wet, straggling heap,” the tender sadness of this humble object is ignored by all as they worry about what Gregg Fisher might be up to next vis-à-vis themselves and whether they are in any danger from Gregg Fisher or his corpse. This time the jokes are an indictment of our narcissism.
The tour de force story, “New Directions,” previously published in Harper’s, is written in the form of a newsletter by a company that was voted “one of the 500 most transparent companies in the San Fernando Valley.” As such it addresses every situation as soon as it arises as part of its efforts to provide “sleeker and hipper” payroll-processing software. First up, the newsletter confirms the mass disappearance of employees in almost an X-Files-like event (contrary to rumor, the newsletter assures, everyone’s clothes were not found by the dumpster although Bob Ferrara’s nebulizer, still running, was recovered). This is a funny enough plot to float the story on merry waters, but again Graber injects deeper, darker currents with the arrival of Laotian temporary workers who—no worries, folks—will not “drain our 401(k) plan, nor will they be given spot raises, bonuses, or Starbucks gift cards. They will also not be allowed to park their rental cars in the parking lot until we can have the missing software department’s vehicles towed.”
The helpful newsletter provides an FAQ about Laotians, beginning with a Wikipedia description of Laos, which is a country. If this take on immigrants evokes Donald Trump, wait until further in the newsletter when it says,
It has been brought to our attention that a sign reading FOR AMERICANS ONLY has been hung next to the urinals in the first-floor men’s room. It was neither placed there by Facilities nor authorized by management, and has been taken down. Please note: posting unauthorized placards in a public building is a misdemeanor in the State of California. Anyone found doing so will be prosecuted.
Neither Trump’s candidacy nor North Carolina restroom laws were imagined when Graber wrote these stories, but that is one of fiction’s most defining powers: its predictive truth, and further, its call to arms. In the best of her stories Graber’s humor is telling us to get ready, to arm ourselves with empathy and a compassionate laser or else we won’t be getting the last laughs.