DISCLAIMER: I’m a sucker for minimalist stories centred on folks trudging through the GPS-free banality of the every day. I’m thinking Carver, Hempel, and now Steve Karas. This book rocked my world just a little bit. If this admission bothers you going into a review then please feel free to avert your eyes for a spell or skip to reading a Whiskeypaper story or twelve (I’d recommend you read every single one but whatever. Pearl Jam sang I Am Mine and you are yours so you are free to do as you please).
Let’s begin with some honesty right off the bat: we’re all trying to connect to someone or something that makes us feel whole, something that enables us to live a more existentially authentic life, something that gives us enough drive to keep on keeping on. But there are constant restraints: the lonely moments we try to keep walled off will always break through like unkept secrets, we’re all a little screwy in the head in unique ways, we’re all just looking to lengthen our cope rope as hopelessly self-aware, gelatinous skin sacs spinning on a rock. This is you, this is me, this is us. And this is how it needs to be. We writerly types take to the page in order to explore or try to make sense of the inner clamour. We know the game is rigged and the answers won’t be forthcoming, but ask the questions we must. It’s the only way to try to conquer our collective disquiet. Some seek to fill the void in other ways: rocking up to dark, smoky bars; indulging in a group of friends whose company they enjoy enough for them to feel a warm and fuzzy sense of sisterhood/brotherhood/community; signing up to multiple dating sites, daring themselves to submit a recent florescent-lit selfie rather than that one good sunset beach shot taken eight years and countless ill-advised gastronomic decisions ago. The majority of us Sisyphus-slog through our everyday with want hidden behind need, our blurry Zapruder dreams of something more fading into a cataract cloud.
For Steve Karas’ characters in this debut collection, their dreams are American yet entirely universal. Somewhere along the undulating path, the linear flow of time failed to deliver on its picket-fence promise of subsidised spiritual or/and material wealth. And it’s on that long walk, where the compass needle ceaselessly spins, that his protagonists try to carve a new route. Along the way we meet, among others, an immigrant YouTuber, whose economic success belies her spiritual dis-ease, and a shopping-mall Santa in training attends a school along with an ex-land surveyor and aerospace engineer - honest, hard-working people who have all seen their best efforts crumble to dust.
It’s the daily struggle to live, love, and prosper between sleeps that Karas hits on right from the opening line of the first story: AIN’T LIKE THE MOVIES:
"I’m sitting at the kitchen table over a bowl of soggy oats, hives crawling up my neck, eyes watery and itchy. It’s the cats; I’m deathly allergic. My mom brought home three last night."
We can all relate to force-feeding ourselves with an uninspiring too-early breakfast meal before work, feeling groggy and ill, beaten up and unmotivated. Sometimes our unrest is a little bashful, not necessarily spelling itself out. It tiptoes up to Jeffrey, who reacts by projecting his angst onto his cat by hearing the words “save me” within a meow.
“I reach down to pet him and he doesn’t resist. “It’s okay, little buddy,” I say. “It’s going to be okay.” The best writing always leaves the dot-connecting to the reader. Using an animal as an emotional surrogate isn’t a new concept, but Karas introduces it with such a deft-hand that it creeps into your thought-shadows, stepping into the spotlight at the perfect moment. The story is KSAD in microcosm: our protagonist experiences the tug of war between settling and striving, the wisdom to be happy with his lot vs the hope that, while lost, he could still be found. When Jeffrey’s stepfather Kevin offers to hand him a fairly lucrative business that would leave Jeffrey stuck but financially sound, Jeffrey is unequivocal with his choice: “Go fuck yourself, Kevin.”
These stories are snapshots of suffering, muted wails of gloom. But it never feels as if the characters are facing insurmountable odds. You will them to keep going, just keep going, and you’re sure, you’re sure the light is just a little further up ahead. While they may doubt themselves, Karas’ characters (mostly) always seem able to photosynthesise the bad into something positive. This is never more evident than in two of my favourite stories: SIXTEEN HUNDRED CLOSEST FRIENDS and the aptly-named TOYS IN CLOSETS.
Sam from SHCF has that feeling when you’re on a stationary train that sits parallel to another. For a couple seconds after the other train begins to move away, you can’t quite tell if you have momentum or simply being passed by. The perceived stagnancy of Sam’s marriage leads him to create a Facebook profile, where he looks up an old friend who still lives the party lifestyle of years past. Once persuaded to sample the greener grass, Sam quickly recoils.
“Kids…Now that’s a game-changer,” Billy, Sam’s old friend, tells him, along with repeating “Good for you, good for you,” as Sam updates him on his marriage and the fact that he owns the local diner. The worst of all secrets is that everyone wonders if That Other Facebook Person is leading a happier, better, or more authentic life. Sometimes that little bit of drive to help you keep on keeping on comes from realising that you’re good, you should stand pat, you’ll never have it better than you do in this job, with this wife, with these kids, in this situation. Sometimes being happy with your lot is the peak in disguise, and that’s just fine. We all keep our ghosts safely stowed, hidden from view. But we usually discover something about ourselves if we dare to remove a brick from the barricade.
TOYS IN CLOSETS focuses on a Ukrainian immigrant who went from attending community college in Brooklyn, to YouTube stardom and wealth, to Riesling wine and foie gras. Yet these are illusory simulacrums of happiness - she’s still hollow, still longing and yearning for the one suture that keeps her heart from spilling over.
ToyCollector (we never learn her real name) strikes up a relationship with Peter, a man who comes from the world of wealth in which she’s entrenched whether she likes it or not. After only two dates, she nervously invites him to the wedding of a gay barista she’d befriended by eating breakfast at his café every morning.
[T]here is something about going out in the morning and being around people that has always made her feel less lonely.
Peter’s Patrick Bateman-esque reaction had me laughing out loud:
“Are you uncomfortable with that kind of thing?” she asks. “What, you mean two men getting married? No, I have no problem with that. I’m hip.” ToyCollector’s arc is one of the more hopeful, successful, and uplifting of the collection. Motivating the initial date with Peter was the vague fear of dying alone: When she’s an old woman, she thinks, will her toys bury her?
Which leads to her over allowing someone new into her protective bubble, as her fear has made her super hydrophobic to opening up:
“How about you, ever married?” [the barista, Ruben] says. “No, never.” “I find that hard to believe. A gorgeous woman like you.” She laughs. “I’m weird. And I don’t trust many people, especially men.”
She finally submits to hope by agreeing to have her previously unseen face filmed when things get a little frisky between herself and Peter:
She lifts her arms behind her head, unclips her hair and shakes it out, offers her flesh and bones.
Can we talk about mastery for a spell? The theme of pending-connection (if not disconnection) is serviced by Karas’ style. There’s an ambivalent tinge to the writing. These stories are told from a distance, like both writer and protagonist are preserving themselves by limiting their emotional investment. But don’t mistake the minimalist style for uncaring – Karas takes the fatherly approach of stepping back from the kindling to let his kids build the fire, even if his lack of intervention means the pyre fails to spark or only reaches a tepid burn. By shooting with a wide-angle lens, the stories have room to breathe, effervescing or melting on their own merits. For me, few things stop the flow like a writer getting in their own way, or worse, padding the narrative with unnecessary stylistic touches.
This leads me to a side note: I all-caps LOVE that Steve doesn’t waste words on physical descriptions, unless they’re absolutely integral to the story, e.g. the “shrivelled tits” in SIXTEEN HUNDRED CLOSEST FRIENDS partly-motivating Sam to look elsewhere. We all read stories for different reasons, but I’ll bet the farm that one of them isn’t to learn that we don’t all look the same. It doesn’t matter to me. What does matter are the decisions a character makes, their proactive measures to avoid reactive missteps, good or bad, warranted or ill-conceived. This is what we talk about when we talk about economy and addition through omission.
This collection holds aloft life’s little victories, whether centred on finding love and companionship, or reaffirming your chosen path. The little shards of light refracting off broken glass are there if you keep your periphery wide. When you do win, you win in increments. You write a letter to a pen pal and hope it’ll sail across the ocean via a balloon (TO ABDO WITH LOVE), or you learn to “keep paddling, kiddo,” when bureaucracy tries to hinder your best efforts as a school counsellor (the anchoring, novella-sized IT TAKES A VILLAGE).
Despite constantly battling a dull ache, the people within these pages have no give up in them. They all share that mysterious thing inside us that makes us strive, fall, get up, dust ourselves off, fall and get up again. Every one of them is wading through their own metaphorical tunnels of crap to get’ busy livin’. With KINDA SORTA AMERICAN DREAM, Steve Karas has tapped into the most human of conditions: we’re never quite done, whether tumbling or on the up. The kid on the front cover, bundled up to fight the cold, could very well land on his ass in a puddle of mud. But like the refrain infused into these stories, he’s looking forward with the hope that he’ll stick the landing.
P.S If you haven’t yet read KINDA SORTA AMERICAN DREAM, I don’t even know what your life is about. Go gitchu some, then tell @Steve_Karas how much you loved it on the double-u3 dot twittler machine dot com. Tell him Whiskeypaper sent ya.
About the Reviewer: Matt has published some things in other places. He has a website where you can find said things: mattjpaul.co.uk. If found, please return him to the nearest coffee shop.