Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, by ZZ Packer, Read by Shirley Jordan, Highbridge Company, 2003
The graduates of the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop have taken over what passes as the best of American writing. A great deal of the authors filling the rosters of the weekly fiction in The New Yorker are Iowa grads; a large number of yearly anthology prize winners hail from this midwest bastion; and the school itself is, in its own field, spoken of as Harvard is for MBAs and MIT is for techies. The inherent problem with this is that Iowa is a molding school wherein writers who matriculate have their rougher edges sanded down to a homogeneous style of style and structure that has a mechanical dullness to it.
There is one particular stylistic quirk Iowa must drill into its graduates which I find distasteful in the quantity of it I see, a sort of implosion-ending that eschews dramatic climax for some metaphoric vagary. This postmodern frugality with heightened states of awareness renders most modern fiction to the murkiness of dingy dishwater, as well as the taste.
Now to read my reviews here, you’d get the impression that I rather dislike innovative writing that refrains from overt dramatic incidents and avoids ideological devotion to the basic plot pyramid. In and of itself, that is not the case. One of my all time favorite short story writers, Raymond Carver, was himself more than a bit inclined to the suppressed climacteric style of ending. Yet he did it with an ingrained grace and poetry that earned my respect for its elegant simplicity and nakedness. To make of this technique a default, de rigueur cardtrick is to render it as dead as year old dog turds. It is to make it a fashion.
Luckily though, Packer’s stories, often first printed in The New Yorker (and much of this collection previously read by me in that manner), have their own naturalness and distinction that shines through the enforced mannerisms of the Writer’s Workshop. I don’t mean that Iowa doesn’t turn out good writers, but that in some cases good writers exit Iowa in spite of the school’s emphasis on polished bland.
The first story “Brownies” is about a black Brownie troop’s confrontation with a white Brownie troop at summer camp. The girls in the black troop work themselves up to a righteous indignation at the rumor that quickly gels into solid belief that one of the white Brownies called one of their troop a “nigger.” Packer has an almost uncanny ear for pre-teen dialogue and Shirley Jordan, the reader, is possessed of one of those higher, wispier voices that easily slides into childlike reminisce. The revelatory confrontation passes by somewhat unexamined, but is emblematic of the Iowa non-climax. The conclusion following such a promising story buildup is a muffled close, almost dispirited.
In the second story, “Every Tongue Shall Confess,” the end collapses in the same way, any actual summit just out of reach. This kind of monotony of structure is all right in isolated stories, say one yarn per week by differing writers, but to listen to an entire collection grows wearisome anymore. As one varies one’s sentence structure and sentence openings, so should one vary one’s style and structure. To read a pile of uniformity ultimately is to be left with no lasting impression.
“Our Lady of Peace,” the collection’s third short story gives us a few twists among the tale of inexperienced teachers among inner city students. The transfer in of a new student from a juvenile home brings surprising order to the classroom at first, but then slowly this harmony deteriorates. Much is left unsaid, unspoken, yet Packer lays out the tenseness of a classroom full of challenging teenagers with a precision surprising for someone whose bio never mentions a stint at the head of the class. The quiet ending like those previously works in this situation, fits perfectly into the life of missed connections existing around teacher student interaction.
“The Ant of the Self” is the least like any of the other stories in the collection, featuring an almost entirely male cast of characters, a young man, Spurgeon, and his alcoholic father going to the Million Man March in Washington, D.C. It is also the most straightforward tale, one culminating in an actually dramatic climax, a beat-down of the son by his father preparatory for his father stealing the son’s car. It, like the sixth tale, “Speaking in Tongues” are the only stories with traditional climaxes, yet both endings cap the stories with violent fights, leaving me wondering if Packer leans toward this formula for cathartic reasons.
“Drinking Coffee Elsewhere,” the title story, is interesting in that the narrator ends up in therapy for a random comment she makes in a college class. Having to choose what inanimate object she would be, she picks a revolver and when asked why she says she’d shoot everyone. The way the story unfolds, you find yourself shaking your head at the silly bureaucratic fiat that packs her off to the headshrinker for a pointless remark (perhaps in high school, what with their recent track record, this might be appropriate, but college?), but slowly you begin to grasp that there is indeed something unsettled within her, something having nothing to do with her statement. Her isolation is the result of something she herself is unable to come to terms with (her lesbianism), but it is never outright confessed, as blatantly as the story walks up to it. Yet again, the story drizzles down to an ending that is wistfully compact and gently unsatisfying.
“Speaking in Tongues” tells of the slow “education” of an ignorant, small town fourteen year old girl who runs away from her aunt, taking a bus to Atlanta in order to find her mother. Everything is inevitable, and as a reader you listen with slowly mounting apprehension and dread. Oh, no, you think, don’t fall for that, don’t do that, oh no. Yet the way the story twists through her fall from innocence, Packer keeps the incidents original enough that we aren’t treated to too many cliches. The hookers with the perhaps too golden hearts, the wanna-be pimp who never quite seals the deal, and the long-expected turn to violence are all painted with just enough clarity that we’re able to swallow the relatively unscathed escape the story’s protagonist makes.
“Geese” reads like the story a college student might write after having visited Japan on a summer vacation. It’s like a print version of the overhyped film Lost in Translation. (And really, someone tell me what made that movie so great? May-December romance cliche meets fish-out-of-water cliche storyline, what’s so unique about that?) Ari, a Japanese man takes in every stray oddball in the city, including our protagonist, Dina, Zolta, a Hungarian ex-bodybuilder, and his passionate, weepy girlfriend, Petra, a former model with a scarred face. All of these crammed into a one-bedroom apartment. Shortly after Dina, Ari brings home Said, a disgraced Moroccan stranded by his family who refuse to forward him money to return. They all exist there on ramen noodles, crackers, and cigarettes. They all live there, starving, growing ever more demented and apathetic.
The final story, “Doris is Coming” is about the possible ending of the world in 1961. No, it has nothing to do with the Cold War, but is in fact about the Pentecostal Church’s calculations for the rapture on New Year’s Eve, 1961. Like much of James Baldwin’s work, the Pentecostal religion is a frequent element of Packer’s stories. But again, there is no real resolution, the story simply ends all semi-metaphorically. Doris proves either her sincere foolhardiness or a stunning amount of bravery by staging a solo sit-in at a local whites-only diner. She leaves the diner without incident; her friend, the Lithuanian TV store salesman is closing his shop. The end. It all just kind of peters out.
What other critics refer to as Packer’s “wisdom” and “maturity” is best noted as her unblinking acceptance of every character. Often writers look down their noses at the villains or paint those with whom the protagonists come into conflict in this narrow, disapproving shallowness. Every bad guy is a sneering, leering ape, a boob, a misanthropic cretin with a vendetta. This simplistic writing is the worst kind, moralistic. Instead, Packer writes like life is normal, filled with individuals who simply disagree and go about trying to either influence others to embrace their vision of the world or trying to enforce this view. This does not mean there aren’t loathsome personalities slithering through Packer’s stories, but they are not cartoons twirling mustachios backed by low tone chords. That in itself seems small and obvious, but it is something rarely done or accomplished by even bigger name authors.
Shirley Jordan, as already mentioned, is possessed of a reedy and breathy organ that lends to the few stories about children a wistful innocence, yet she presents a number of tougher shades and dialects when essential. The occasional meekness of her voice is in perfect accord with the quiet inner lives of the characters, and the steel she keeps hidden until absolutely vital comes out of nowhere like a blow to the head. In this way, she is quite perfectly suited to Packer’s stories: quiet, unassuming, but don’t turn your back.