Book Review: Katherine Heiny’s “Games and Rituals” — Charmingly Amusing Stories

By Drew Hart

Katherine Heiny has a particular talent for opening lines: “Your elderly father has mistaken his four-thousand-dollar hearing aid for a cashew and eaten it.” 

Games and Rituals: Stories by Katherine Heiny. Knopf, 224 pp.

It’s the morning after this year’s White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner as this is being written — our commander-in chief breezed through it tossing out catchy remarks. (Loved the Fox News jokes!) Of course, this gathering takes place in D.C., not far from the home of writer Katherine Heiny, whose new short story collection, Games and Rituals, is so similarly clever that you imagine Uncle Joe getting coaching instructions from her. There are eleven stories in this book, her fourth work of fiction, mostly set along the eastern seaboard, in New York, the capital district, and Florida, and most of them are charmingly amusing.

What’s so funny? Most of Games takes place in everyday landscapes, among middle and upper-middle class Anglo types – not always a fertile scene to explore. (Well recently, especially? This is not the wokest of crowds!) However, Heiny has a knack for making lemonade out of lemons; these tales tend to run away with themselves, and you won’t find yourself poorer for it. How about some examples: in “Damascus”, a divorced mother with a history of drug use worries over her teenaged son, whose behavior is better than her own – she’s doing cocaine and having sex with the Ex! Until five in the morning! “Turn Back Turn Back” presents a TV news producer who’s able to support her husband – a stay-at-home dad and frustrated actor – but what is she to do about the affair she suspects he’s having? The height of COVID is recalled in “Pandemic Behavior”, where a Florida novelist is muddling through: fighting off migraine attacks, hoarding toilet paper, drinking mango margaritas to excess with her roommate, and helping an elderly professor with his memoirs – until one day she learns he has succumbed to the virus. The story the book is titled after consists of numerous ways a young Midwestern woman spends her time as she follows her guy to New York to make a new life: she laughs with girlfriends over other people on the subway; worries about street people and intruders; watches the boyfriend quietly phase out their relationship. It’s an effective conglomeration.

Zingers abound here; Heiny has a particular talent for opening lines: “Your elderly father has mistaken his four-thousand-dollar hearing aid for a cashew and eaten it.” “William had begun to worry that he no longer sparked joy in his wife and that she would give him to Goodwill.” She has a way of breaking in on her own stories with parenthetical asides that play well. Or using italics like outbursts: “she put the legal pad aside, unzipped Jack-Henry’s trousers, and they got it on.” The book is consequently a droll one – if Updike or Richard Ford were as funny, they might be regarded as influences. (But – to voiceover in her fashion – they’re not…)

More sound bites – (this is to capture the spirit here without giving too much away):

–   “Honestly, how can one man in a ratty brown cardigan be so maddening? It’s really sort of impressive.”

–   “Dominique’s voice sounded like glass beads rolling on a snare drum.”

–   “… some inexplicable and distasteful urge, like a sudden desire to move to Cleveland.”

–  “‘The world is beautiful,’ Oscar said… ‘You are beautiful.’ Tessa glanced up with a half-smile. ‘That’s just the blow job talking.’”

–  “(Some people say time is like a river, but it’s really more like an accordion, constantly squeezing you back to high school.)”

–  “But that’s February – all the joy leaks out of life.”

Now do you see the point about the author and Biden? Maybe not? Well – your F.C.* thinks you’re likely to have a good time with this one — probably a better one than you’d have had sitting around with all those news people last night…

Drew Hart is the *F.C. – ‘faithful correspondent’ – writing from Santa Barbara, California

1 Comment

  1. tim jackson on May 3, 2023 at 11:01 am

    Your rambling review has just enough bait for me to order this book.
    Thanks for that!

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