Review: “The Santa Monica Review” Fall 2010 Fiction

by Rio Liang

The Ruelle’s resident literary curmudgeon is back after an overlong summer hiatus, and what better way to return than with fiction from the latest issue of The Santa Monica Review. Enjoy the SMR’s Fall 2010 issue.

Janice Shapiro’s “I’m Your Man.” What an intriguing story. Fifty-year-old Chris has recently divorced Cassandra, and both are trying to get on with their love lives. But of course, it’s a bumpy road ahead, given they’re both past their prime. Chris has taken on a twentysomething lover, Pammy, whom he suspects cheats on him with another man her age. Cassie, on the other hand, has gone back to an old lover, Leon, for whom the initial spark she had felt had diminished over the interim of her being married to Chris. Aging and tossed aside by Chris, she knows she’s a loser in a society in which looks matter. Chris and his best friend Tom, as men, believe they’re winners in this society, though their fates are no worse than Cassie’s:  Chris is stuck in the most unattractive and domestic of situations as he cares for his children for the weekend, all while trying to figure out what’s going on with Pammy and quietly coping with Cassandra’s announced fling. And poor Tom, who smugly believes himself better than Cassie, ends up in a fateful car accident. The story fittingly ends in the point of view of the young Pammy, who is clueless to what’s really in store for her. Things are good now, but come the time she gets to be Cassie’s age, she can ill afford to be careless with love any longer. …There’s much to like here, though initially I couldn’t figure out what elements were meant to resonate. I like how Shapiro paints the middle-aged as passive (or passive-aggressive) to the point of being weak, while the young are shown with a jangling loudness to them. (I actually have a point of contention with the way Pammy and her blonde dreadlocked lover on the side were depicted as saying “like” too much; there’s a hollowness or flatness to their depiction, but I suppose that’s a bit of the point). Both Chris and Cassie are trying to recapture that loudness of youth, but fail miserably. Nice piece with rewards in the rereading of it.

Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s “Errands” and “Crow.” The subject of Ms. Schwartz’s first story is an unnamed middle-aged woman caring for her husband. She has been in this role several times before, first to her children, then for her mother and her mother-in-law. Powerless in the face of her duties, she finds a warped sense of power in letting her oblivious husband go about his day with his shirt buttoned up wrong. …There’s something about the passive-aggressiveness of a muted/put-upon caregiver that works subtly well as conflict for a short short such as this. To ask for more details, for the story to continue further would be missing the point. The quiet indignance of the wife is so intriguing when presented as a frozen slice in time. You’re left somewhat unsettled by her burden by story’s end, yet you don’t feel like closure is all that necessary here. Sometimes, stories don’t end happily nor tragically; sometimes people live in a limbic stage just like the wife in this story. Ms. Schwartz’s even shorter second piece, “Crow,” is probably one of my favorites in this issue. It ties a black crow to a lady in mourning who is perhaps a bit too ready to move on and find herself a new beau. I was pleasantly surprised in the end by the nice twist on the black crow’s “shiny thing.” Overall, these are two stories that succeed with their intended lengths.

JJ Strong’s “The Waters Around You.” There’s nothing quite as invigorating after long periods of slogging through literary journals and magazines as the discovery of new and promising literary talent. According to Mr. Strong’s bio, this is his first publication, and it’s a very enjoyable one. It’s Election Night 2008, and twenty-eight-year-old Ibby is in an in-between stage in her life. She is in a loveless relationship with her boyfriend Simon (he is the kind of person who’d become so amorous of a win by Barack Obama that it would be all but a guarantee that lovemaking will happen on Election Night), and to make ends meet Ibby thanklessly teaches college courses and tutors twelve-year-old Max Gold. It is painfully obvious that her tutee, who aptly resembles his rambunctious namesake in “Where the Wild Things Are,” is suffering from ADHD. But the boy’s aggressive and controlling mother Stephanie (whom Ibby refers to as “Hurricane Mom”) refuses to believe such a diagnosis for her son. Ibby’s tutoring serves as a way reinforce this false belief. Everything comes to a head on this momentous night when, after unsuccessfully trying to help Max write a social studies paper on abortion, we come to realize a connection between Stephanie ignoring Max’s problems and Ibby letting her relationship with Simon sputter on. We all know that Obama wins at the end of the night, but that’s a moot point; rather the story is about surviving the dysfunction of this family Ibby finds herself with on this historic night. …This is a story full of surprises; the characters are all like hurricanes, unpredictable. I was startled when young Max vengefully gets his Swiss Army knife and spits out threats at his disruptive sixteen-year-old sister (he specifically says he will cut off her vagina, a counterpoint to her punch), then equally surprised when the story closes with the boy telling Ibby an unexpectedly sweet thing. In any case, a really good piece. In the story, Max frittered his time away by telling Ibby “Watch this!” My directive to the reader is “Read this!”

Michael Guista’s “Till Death Do Us Part.” Mike and Sam are divorcing, but their plans are stalled by an emergency trip to the hospital. Allie, their eleven-year-old, is beset by hallucinations, and the doctors can’t figure out what’s wrong with her. Mike looks angrily upon another patient in the emergency room for the certainty of his injury, in comparison to the uncertainty of Allie’s. In a way, Allie’s disorder parallels Mike’s and Sam’s divorce plans. The reasons for their divorce, much like Allie’s test results, are themselves inconclusive. The incident has, if not brought them closer together, at least accentuated the tenderness Mike and Sam still feel for each other. And an uncertain future having to live with Allie’s unnamed disorder further complicates any living arrangements that may result from a divorce. How would he and his ex-wife properly take care of her in turns? Will they stay together and take shifts, just as they had when renting out a motel room near the hospital, taking care of their daughter? It’s a very intriguing moment in time for this family. Just as the “Till death do us part” of the title may be crossed out as a result of the uncertainty of a marriage’s stability, it may very well be un-crossed as a result of the uncertainty revolving around a potential divorce. Good piece.

Katherine Karlin’s “Underwater.” There’s something oddly charming about this one. We follow Nan, a fish aquarium technician from Colorado now living in Los Angeles as she makes her rounds from client to client. Through the span of a workday, we meet the often odd people that make up her clientele:  Jeunessa at a Hawthorne abortion clinic; the prickly Tongs at the Hunan Palace, a Chinese restaurant in Alhambra; and the Armenian body shop mechanics Aram and Krikor in Glendale. We learn early on that Nan was once a loan officer, and it’s interesting to see the contrast between her current life, filled with these quirky clients, and the somber tragic characters of her past life, in which she had to deny people the opportunity to stay in their homes. Two particularly poignant moments of the piece–when we find out that Nan in her banking days had joined in the laughter when watching with her co-workers a woman being evicted on YouTube; as well as a somber visit she made to Mr. Ramirez, whom the bank wouldn’t let refinance–are further accentuated by the lighter tone of the story’s other passages. In moments of lightness, she asks her clients if they’ve ever seen Jake Gyllenhaal, a question often asked of her by friends back home. Unfortunately there is no “critical mass of glamour” where she lives. Only a trail of dreams broken. …Overall, there is an unevenness to the piece, and it feels like random slices held together flimsily at times, but the little details splattered throughout that come and go but whose imprints linger, won me over. (For example, Jeunessa’s odd jawbone swipe; Nan’s main competitor, the Cirque du Soleil peddler; Mr. Posada’s oddly-decorated house; Aram’s dubious pill for Nan’s headache. And also Nan’s constantly coming up short of an actual Gyllenhaal encounter).

This is a two-part review, so keep an eye out for part two in the days to come.

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