by G.K. Wuori
Main Street Rag, 2014
I adore G. K. Wuori. You know his plots are going to be delightfully quirkily; you know he’s going to give you a laugh while making you think a little, too; and you know his prose will take you down new roads that make him the envy of many a writer.
In this latest short novel, Jim O’Hara, a trial attorney of local renown, is having to defend Johnny Mondragon, who doesn’t seem like such a bad bloke, except he left “a whole lot of questions hanging about what you do when you have love boiling away on the stove and no one’s watching the pot.” Which is to say, when his wife left him, pregnant by another man, Johnny, because he loved her so much, plugged her seven times. He said he’d thought of the bullets as “something like little nets or ropes that would slow her down so she would listen, would understand, and would enter some sort of negotiating posture.” But when she was clearly dead, he shot her some more and then desecrated her with a screwdriver. That last bit, Jim tells him, even if we carried a juror along into believing it was some kind of crime of passion, that’s where we lose him altogether. “He’s filing down the guillotine. He’s uncoiling the rope.”
It’s a depressing situation. And Jim’s wife is a Mondragon herself as the town is full of them. Not that she knew Johnny very well or cares much, but still. Actually, she and Jim hardly talk as she’s a real estate lawyer and busy with her own agenda. Jim seeks an outlet and finds it in a young widow, Sophie Skribneski, who has been renting an apartment from him after a spell of being homeless when she was evicted from her home due to a foreclosure. Sophie is back on her feet, but four months behind in rent. Jim goes over to try to collect and is welcomed by Sophie and her fourteen-year-old daughter, Chantal. The ever upbeat Sophie has a new job, having signed on with a pharmaceutical company who wants to experiment on her for reasons they are not disclosing. The vetting process was a mystery in itself:
The corporate people asked her about her diet on the questionnaire; if she bit her
fingernails, if she was sexually extreme; if she smoked, drank, had accidents; if she
was ever incontinent, and strangest of all, if she could sing. They weighed her, they
measured her, they put her on a treadmill, and they floated her in a tank of water . . .
What Sophie really wanted to tell them – with no provision for it on the form, naturally -
was that she wanted to be good for them, to make them happy in their work and successful even if they were bound by law to tell her only the bad things that might happen.
Like her liver would be on the line, like “a pregnancy if things went well, and a baby carried to term if things did not.” Yes, that sounded contradictory, but all she had to do was put herself in the hands of the scientists. As her daughter said, her mother “occasionally liked to go diving without checking to see if there was any water in the pool.”
Jim continues to work the Johnny Mondragon case, but it’s a head banger as every encounter with him seems to defy logic, such as Johnny’s request that he might be able to retrieve some of the bullets from his wife’s body so that he “could, like, hold all his bad feelings in his hands.” Jim begins spending more and more of his free time at the Skribneski’s. As Sophie’s body weakens, he brings food, helps around the house, does repairs, and delights in Sophie’s company as well as Chantal’s. But the attraction is in helping Sophie as she slowly begins to fall apart. And they can talk with ease. It’s not that he can’t talk with his wife, but “their points and their punchlines had long since been worked out . . . . [they had] stalemated into the silent understandings of different lives.”
Johnny Mondragon is going to prison, but can he escape the death penalty? How far will all the experimentation go with Sophie? Will Jim’s marriage survive with all the time he’s putting in at the Skribneski’s? This is a fun romp of a read, with lots of lines to crack you up and a good reflection on our need to be needed – “helpful,” as Jim would say – as means of salvation in an eerily familiar world gone awry. J.A.
Unaccompanied Minors: Stories
by Alden Jones
New American Press, 2014
In one of Alden Jones’ stories the narrator says: “I’ve never been able to follow other people’s rules when they deprive me of joy.” That holds true for all the characters in the collection – all young girls except for one - although it isn’t a negative implying some sort of selfish hedonism. Rather, these are simply young and free-spirited females who are out in the world testing limits and looking for something missing in their lives.
In the opening story, “Shelter,” we follow the very feminine narrator and “this dyke Spike” who occasionally manages to get in her pants when she’s blacked out. This odd couple has gone off on a camping venture with equipment they’ve stolen from Spike’s roommate’s brother. When it starts to get cold, they decide to head for a homeless shelter for a lark to see “who’s in there all hard up.” A lot of “No” rules go with the shelter, but these are blithely ignored as the two temporarily take up residence.
Lanie, the narrator of “Something Will Grow,” is taking care of a six-year-old girl as part of a Big Sister program. Innocently – but against the rules of the program – she has the little girl in the shower with her because the child needed a wash. When the little tot rubs soap on Lanie’s tummy, “right there was the snag.” She is reminded of the child she aborted when she was only fourteen, and her thoughts are thrown back to that time, to the father, and all that followed.
One of the most outstanding stories, in a collection without one dud, is “Thirty Seconds.” The narrator here is a babysitter and the opening line sets the direction: “The fact that Johnny Kirk is dead has little to do with me. My hours were officially over at six o’clock that day, and the only reason I was at the Country Club with the Kirks at six thirty-five, when it happened, was because I was nice.” A slight exaggeration as she’d been very annoyed at running overtime and she’s not above thinking the little boy was an “asshole” like his father and the mother a social wannabe whose bleach-blond hair and orangey skin” sets her apart.
“Freaks” is the story of a friendship between two attractive high school girls – one an anorexic, the other suffering from some kind of skin disorder which leaves her with “scales” on her forearm; while “Heathens” takes us to Costa Rica where a gringa school teacher seethes with hatred for the Evangelical gringos, particularly one young girl, who pass through offering trinkets to help convert the locals, but whose loathing has deeper roots than first appear.
A group of young people on some sort of rehabilitation camping-in-the-rough expedition is the setting of “Flee,” where, naturally, rules are broken and personal boundaries explored.
The one male narrator appears in “Sin Alley,” also set in Costa Rica. Homosexual Oscar is smitten by the beautiful Martín who turns tricks in “sin alley” - a sprawling, filthy place covered in dog shit run by the “stinky queen” Cinderella. Jones deftly captures the lust and desire amidst the squalor while exploring the lives of the various characters whose options in life are severely limited.
This marvelous collection won the New American Fiction Prize sponsored by New American Press. It is well deserved. J.A.
© TBR 2014
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