Book Review: “My Brooklyn Writer Friend” — Flashes in the Gloom

Thanks in large part to brevity alone, the way these stories work is closer to poetry than to fiction: they don’t rely on the dynamics of plot or action—there’s no really time for that—but on juxtaposition, observation, and symbolism.

My Brooklyn Writer Friend by Greg Gerke, Queen’s Ferry Press, 115 pages, $18.

My Brooklyn on template.indd

By Vince Czyz

There are a number of trends in short story writing that seem less than promising, starting with shortening the form to “flash fiction.” This is where, all too often, authors who can write neither poetry nor a full-length story crash-land. Flash fictions are aptly named; they’re often gone a minute after you’ve read them. Of course, many are quite good, but even the best rarely linger in memory. One of the trends in short stories is the nameless protagonist, a choice that more often than not becomes distracting. Still another is deflection. More and more, it seems, these stories don’t commit to conveying anything of depth; instead, they are written in purposely uncomplicated prose often bordering on (or outright) insipid. Light as lint, they offer cutesy wordplay or flecks of humor like the bubbles added to water to tickle the nose. As David Foster Wallace warned in his incisive, 1997 essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” sincerity (how banal!) and passion are “out”; irony, humor (as a refusal to take a stance), self-reflexiveness and narcissism, are in.

Greg Gerke’s debut collection, My Brooklyn Writer Friend, contains 115 pages of flash fictions that indulge in many of the devices (or perhaps, vices) mentioned above, but Gerke is canny enough to redeem his tales with shrewd observations and a quirky brand of humor that underlines the sense of futility and unhappiness pervading his characters’ lives. Protagonists are powerless or trapped, frustrated by circumstances or their own shortcomings, overly attached to objects or their childhoods, or are simply unable to make relationships work.

Gerke’s stories allude to a pernicious distance between lives; separation is implied by the way words fail to connect two people, by the way a character asks a question that another character replies to as if she hadn’t heard the question, by the way objects take on inordinate importance, as though the characters find it easier to relate to a musical instrument or a piece of furniture than to a boyfriend or a girlfriend. For example, in “The Bookcase” the nameless protagonist is taken with a beautiful, antique bookshelf that his girlfriend (also nameless) inherits from her aunt (Ruth). The girlfriend is fairly jubilant, not over having this lovely library accessory in her home, but because “she thought he would stare at the bookcase and finally let her be.” She is mostly correct: “The bookcase occupied him because it was empty and it smelled like 1978 and 1978 was a good year. He was seven and eight that year. A lot of ice cream and orange soda …” Letting the lead characters go unnamed (but not the aunt) isn’t mere trendiness in this story; rather, it amplifies the estrangement of the lovers from one another. The half-page tale ends with the man making a little bed in front of the bookcase and singing it “a three-verse love song.” Why are the man and woman unable to admit their relationship is over? Why can’t they deal openly with each other? Whatever the answers to those questions, the reason a bit of skillful carpentering becomes the recipient of the man’s affection is clear enough.

Indirectness is a vice in these flash fictions, an inability to confront emotions—one’s own as well as someone else’s—or to even open up to others. This is painfully apparent in the dysfunctional father-son relationship portrayed in “My Unhappy Writer Friend,” one of the more poignant pieces in the collection. The writer friend has been “unhappy” for as long as the narrator has known him, but the writer’s father, “one of the most vivacious 75-year-olds in existence” is “Stunned to think he’d produced such a downer” and cannot find a way to relate to his son. As the end of the story makes clear, however, it is far from entirely the father’s fault; the writer is emotionally needy—pathetically so—and blithely narcissistic.

Thanks in large part to brevity alone, the way these stories work is closer to poetry than to fiction: they don’t rely on the dynamics of plot or action—there’s no really time for that—but on juxtaposition, observation, and symbolism. Their weakness is inherent in the quicksilver method. The stories mention emotions (he was unhappy; she was crying) but are less effective at evoking them. The nameless figures are rarely described, except as “Uruguayan” or perhaps as “a filmmaker.” We know almost nothing about these characters, not even what they look like, and since emotions are largely rooted in character, it is hard to feel much for these protagonists. What salvages them is the plaintiveness of their voices and the compassion Gerke has for his literary creations. Unlike Gary Lutz (Lutz penned one of the back-cover blurbs), who tends to conduct verbal experiments in stainless-steel test tubes rather than write stories, Gerke is invested in the fate of his characters.

The lead story, “The Big Woman,” is easily one of the most affecting in the collection. Not coincidentally, it features two of the volume’s most developed characters: an obese woman (“approaching a tractor’s weight”) who “wore smelly, ragged bandages about her ankles and a green scarf made out of a plastic kite”; and a boy: “I was seven. I smelled pretty good. I had no stubble or debt, a pretty good relationship with Santa and the Easter Bunny. She just liked me.” It’s clear, in fact, that she loves the boy, in what seems a healthy way, and that she has little else in her life. Trouble hits when, for reasons that are unclear (though there are hints), her visits end. This story is exceptionally well-done, from the carefully chosen details (“the splayed grass where she had sat slowly rose”) to the deftly sketched characters. Gerke’s brand of humor, which could have come from an eccentric uncle, is at its funniest here, and the ending is a jab to the gut.

While some of the stories seem a bit aimless, a scattering of lone flakes, there is a cumulative effect to My Brooklyn Writer Friend, a build-up to an impressive dune of clean white. Gerke shows patience, restraint, and wisdom. He uses humor as a way of setting off firefly-sized flashes in the gloom. His stories are also compulsively readable—if you’re not careful, you may finish the book in a long afternoon.

Vince Czyz is the author of The Christos Mosaic, a novel, and Adrift in a Vanishing City, a collection of short fiction. He is the recipient of the Faulkner Prize for Short Fiction and two NJ Arts Council fellowships. The 2011 Capote Fellow, his work has appeared in many publications, including New England Review, Shenandoah, AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, Georgetown Review, Quiddity, Tampa Review, Boston Review, and Louisiana Literature.

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