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As a rule, I am not enthusiastic about short-story collections. I prefer the content of books of fiction to be cumulative, with a single dramatic arc that spans the covers. I find that short stories, even ones that are stocked with powerful writing, tend to dissolve into oblivion when I'm through with them. There are a few exceptions, however, and I am delighted to add Vestal McIntyre's You Are Not The One to my very short list of indelible tales. I read its eight stories with the greatest avidity, amazed by the writer's variety, virtuosity, and sting. I cannot think of a superior collection.
I gathered from the first story, "Binge," that You Are Not The One might be like a box of extremely good chocolates: I might have one, but only one, a day. "Binge" describes a night on the town, as it were, had by Lynn, a forty-something food consultant. Lynn has been given a small bag of cocaine by a beautiful but untalented pastry-cook as a thankful gesture at the end of one of Lynn's assignments, and, getting ready to go to a party, Lynn decides to take the drug by herself, without sharing any with Charles, her husband, or even letting him know. Her high owes more to having a secret than to snorting the cocaine.
As the story proceeds, Lynn's notion that she is in control of her evening is steadily undercut by her wayward behavior at the party. At one point, she is overcome by a desire to call her mother, but her cell phone is in her coat and she doesn't know where the coat is. A series of distractions finally erases her original objective, and she finds herself in a room with a lot of younger people doing an improvised interpretive dance. She seems to carry this off without making a fool of herself, but she only feels strange afterward. "The gap between where she should be and where she was - that was the hollowness." The drug, in other words, has made use of Lynn without teaching her or changing her. Instead, it has left her both exhausted and wakeful. She spends the night's last hours of darkness in a solitary daze, and then discovers that she has an important appointment first thing in the morning. Mr McIntyre doesn't let Lynn get away with her dodgy irresponsibility. You hope that Lynn will look back on her night of "bumps" with rueful shame.
The tempo of "Binge," and its ear for offhand exchange, tell of a certain kind of New York life: a world of strangers, a world too busy for the incoming talent ever to get to know very many other people with genuine intimacy. It is clear at once that the well from which flowed Lynn's friendship with Cookie, her hostess and old college friend, has dried up and can't, in any case, have run very deep. Lynn's bright carapace no longer resonates with interior possibilities. Superficial allure cloaks a menacing vacuum - the "hollowness" that Lynn is left with after her performance. "Binge" must be a terrific read for folks who have decided not to give the Big Apple a try - and yet how mistaken such a reading would be. Lynn's exhaustion could happen to anyone, anywhere. Only the dark glitter is peculiar to Manhattan.
"Sahara," the ensuing story, which takes us to the author's native region, southern Idaho, is an entirely different production. Narrated by a hapless orphan who has been reduced to the "American kabuki" of shilling a restaurant in a kangaroo costume, "Sahara" takes place in a teenaged world without much adult supervision. A not-very-bright gang leader makes a mistake, and the suspense that follows, ultimately unresolved, turns on whether the jerk is going to deal with his mistake by making bigger mistakes. If the story recalls James Dickey's Deliverance, its violence and horror toned down to stupid-kid levels, it remains an indication of how easy it is to step into very poorly socialized company in rural America.
The expansive opening of "ONJ.com" suggests that Mr McIntyre might have a novel somewhere inside him; then again, it may be his way of thumbing his nose at novels.
The following tale concerns a lost world that I lived in and some of its residents whom I knew personally. It shocks me how recently this world existed, and how quickly it vanished when the economy soured. It was the world of advertising, graphics, and the Internet at the turn of the twenty-first century, and its former residents are now unemployed, or differently employed, or clinging to a thread of a job by working long, hard hours where they used to play online poker and make long-distance calls. Untold numbers have suffered the ultimate indignity: being forced to leave New York. And although darker and more recent events make it less and less likely, all are awaiting a recovery and a return to the good old days of short hours and fat checks.
I am, at least.
This narrator, who appears to tell, but not to have a role in, the story, speaks with a voice that's very different from that of "Sahara." There is a smartness here, an arch and somewhat blasé squint. If you removed the specifics - the Internet, the twenty-first century - you might be looking at something mock-institutional by Benchley or Thurber ("Untold numbers have suffered the ultimate indignity...") Advice to the reader: don't think you're smarter than this guy.
We soon find ourselves transposing this advice, hoping that Olive, the protagonist, won't fall for thinking that she's smarter than Craig, a temp whom she hires to work on a project at the agency where she's in charge of a direct-mail promotion. Olive, initially a very sympathetic character, has spent a weekend composing a list of things that she wants to change about her life. "Say what I want," the most important item, is followed by "Make a gay friend," which is precisely what she sets out to do with Craig. Being the staffer who's keeping the temp in work, however, dulls Olive's attentiveness to Craig. She enjoys him - the bulk of the story describes the holiday relationship that she takes with Craig over several months - but without getting to know him, and she inevitably betrays her ignorance in a way that he finds, not embarrassing, but diminishing - of Olive. "He felt what the nice people call disappointment but what he calls betrayal."
By this time, Olive looks a lot more like a Lynn-in-the-making that she did at the beginning of the story. Her projected self-realization has amounted to little more than entitled self-assertion. She wants to be more engaged in the world, but she fails to grasp that engagement works both ways. She becomes, if anything, a worse listener, spoiled by Craig's indulgence. "ONJ.com" is a refreshing if biting corrective to clichés about the compatibility of smart women and gay men. And, like "Binge," it shows how awfully and utterly alone fast New Yorkers can be.
With "Dunford," Mr McIntyre, who is gay (and a contributor to From Boys to Men: Gay Men Write About Growing Up; that's how I discovered him), displays his thorough mastery of the male heterosexual mentality. The title character, Mark Dunford is an architect whose wife and son have outrun him as creative forces; his wife is an award-winning photographer, and his son has already shot a respectably-seen indie film. The minute that wife and son take off on a trip to California, Mark yields to a long-smoldering temptation and contacts an escort service. His big date, which takes place in his Mercedes in the middle of a suburban Long Island afternoon, is a hilarious disaster. But as it ends we're reminded of something that the author let drop not far into the story: "He didn't want to be special and couldn't remember if he ever had." Long before what ought to have been a colossal humiliation, Mark is already done for.
"Disability" is narrated in the chatty lingo of a self-styled fuckup, Frank. Frank has been faking the aftershock of an injury in order to collect disability. The insurance company, suspicious, requires him to be examined by a shrink, but the shrink is a clueless moron who doesn't seem to understand why he has been retained. Frank means well, but not very heartily, and he refuses to do anything - even to admit in an open fashion - that he has a terrible drinking problem. The consequences of this problem are occasionally mentioned, but always obliquely, as if there were something wrong with the world for taking issue with Frank in uninhibited mode. Like many such people, Frank is an amusing storyteller, and we sense that, while we might, if we were her friend, urge Olive to take a stab at being a better person, we'd indulge Frank at least so long as he didn't vomit on our shoes. Once again, the New York note is struck in a way that shows it to be an intensification of music that might be made anywhere in America. We meet three of Frank's odd assortment of friends, one of whom is just plain odd. ("Rand's deal is that he has a need to be held down. His hands can't be free while he's asleep...") Frank also has issues with his mother, with whom he tries to improve relations by hosting a Mother's Day luncheon that, predictably, disappoints.
I found the remaining three stories, "Octo," "Foray," and "Nightwalking," as exciting to read as the ones that I've discussed here, but for one reason or another their impact was lesser, perhaps because the first two center on boys with brain-chemical disabilities ("Foray" is, however, arguably the most moving read in the collection), while "Nightwalking" struck me as misfocused, with a central character who is nowhere near as interesting (or frightening) as her sister, a famous poet. But dissatisfaction with only one story out of eight (and not very great dissatisfaction at that) is a very high score indeed. You Are Not The One even carries a spot-on blurb, by Edmund White.
If you're interested in the way we live now, read these funny, destabilizing, and superbly crafted stories.
My advice exactly. I think you'll thank me. I intend to thank Vestal McIntyre. (December 2006)
Copyright (c) 2006 Pourover Press