Review: Half as Happy by Gregory Spatz
In Half as Happy, his second book of short stories, Gregory Spatz plays around, as his title suggests, with ideas of halves and doubles. His characters live with a constant sense of incompleteness, as if there is always someone or something missing from their lives; moreover, many people and places are half one thing and half another, resting uneasily on a middle ground between reality and ideals.
The collection opens with “Any Landlord’s Dream,” a telescopic view of the history of 927 West 27th Street. As in Elizabeth Graver’s The End of the Point, Spatz traces the property back to its pre-colonial history; here, he imagines that it was the site of a Native American boy’s vision quest. But today it is home to tenants Carolyne and Seamus McVee, a caterer and an electrician who hope a new location will help them recover from their separate grief at losing their baby boy and get their sex life going again. The title bears an ironic double meaning: it refers to the McVees as ideal tenants but also references an unpleasant scene in which the landlord comes unannounced one day and sees through the basement window a peeping Tom’s fantasy come true.
“Happy for You” introduces the recurring theme of bitterness masked by feigned happiness. An older woman is rudely awakened by a phone call in the middle of the night; as her dreams retreat, she realizes it’s her son Ben calling from back East, having miscalculated the time difference once again. He says he wants recipes for the traditional Easter foods she made when he was a kid, but his mother can tell this is only a ruse. In fact, he’s calling to tell her that his father, Tad, is bringing his new family out to visit Ben for Easter dinner. Our heroine (who remains unnamed) drifts back into her memory, recalling when she first met Tad on a bird-watching outing in college. It seems she could just as easily have ended up with a guy named Ted whom she stood up around the same time – pointing to a latent fear that if love is arbitrary, partners are interchangeable and regrets almost inevitable. As the phone call ends, our protagonist having tried to act genuinely happy at her son’s reunion with his father, she descends back into dreams, troubled by the phone call’s sarcasm and misunderstanding.
Also set in the wake of a broken relationship is stand-out story “No Kind of Music,” which has accountant Patrick Shields trying to develop an aesthete’s love of classical music after his wife Charlotte leaves him for Dave, a one-legged marathon runner. As he tries to connect with the memory of his would-be conductor grandfather through attending a Brahms symphony and reading a biography of Vivaldi, Patrick’s high-brow pretensions keep slamming up against the mundaneness of his life. His horrible redneck neighbors keep interrupting him with their noisy lovemaking, their cynical megachurch-going ways, and their ongoing family tragedies of drug addiction and untimely death. The story ends on the bitter contrast of Patrick attending an open-air symphony while the neighbors’ daughter is passed out drunk in his house; is it him or Dave who is half a man in this scenario?
“Luck” blends the drunken bitterness of the two preceding stories with the theme of addictive gambling found in Hester Kaplan’s novel The Tell. Herb Zackowsky, an appliance salesman from Seattle, is on an Alaskan cruise with his wife Margo and their model-pretty daughter, Janelle. While Margo sets out to lose a fortune on the slot machines, Herb becomes obsessed with his hallucination that the man who killed their daughter Desiree in a drunk-driving accident is also onboard. As the crew bring out sparklers and a baked Alaska to celebrate July 4th, Herb can only reflect on how greedy, mean, and sad his loss has made him.
Of the eight stories, “The Bowmaker’s Cats” is the odd one out: a strange, almost magical realist tale (narrated in the first-person plural I find so intriguing) of eight violinists inspecting the ludicrously expensive bows in an eccentric bowmaker’s studio. The exotic materials the bowmaker uses – silver, gold, abalone, and mastodon tusk – contrast with the tatty ceramic animals the brothers in the next story, “A Bear for Trying,” superglue to the dashboard of their truck. Karl is a tattooed redneck and his twin brother Eber an effete invalid, but they both end up sleeping with the same woman – are they the same person, or two complementary halves of a whole? Amid a welter of wild weather, exotic metaphors, and relentless alliteration, the dashboard animals start to come unstuck, prompting Karl to wonder how he can be a complete person without his brother.
The title story is one of the book’s highlights and is sited, as many of the previous stories are, in the hotbed of a struggling marriage. Mortgage lender Stan Riggs is worried about his wife Heidi. During the school year she works as associate dean of a college, but she’s been devoting her summer off to swimming in their pool and has lost an alarming amount of weight. Heidi has never let many people in close to her – always preferring passing encounters with interesting strangers – and Stan is haunted by an intimate poolside scene he witnessed between her and her best female friend. The difficulty of truly knowing his wife, especially over this summer as she shrinks to nearly half her size, makes Stan wonder if happiness is something that can ever be held onto.
Final story “String” weaves elements from the rest of the collection into its examination of the unexpected workings of fate. It opens again with a first-person plural voice, reminiscent of that in Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides, as the Dobson cousins tell of the summer night when they set up a string-and-rag “ghost” across a country road. Alternating the boys’ explanation with sections of third-person omniscient narration, Spatz reveals the unpredictable outcome of their thoughtless shenanigans. James, a roofer separated from his wife, will see the ghost and skid off the road, crashing his truck and suffering a serious head wound. Ginny, a caterer pregnant by her Russian boyfriend, will stop to help. The unforeseen connections between these characters make a cat’s-cradle of crossing strings – recalling the threads the Fates spin and cut to control mortal lives.
Spatz has an intimate understanding of the lives and motivations of ordinary people. He is both sensitive to and critical of the way that high-blown fantasies contradict the exigencies of everyday life. From alternating positions of godlike omniscience and companionable understanding (those first-person plural sections), he shows that he is sympathetic to the misunderstandings and bitterness that marble his characters’ experience. Sharp dichotomies run throughout the stories: highbrow versus lowbrow (expensive musical instruments and symphonies on the one hand; tattooed rednecks with trucks on the other), lucky versus ill-fated (both literally, as in the gambling plot in “Luck,” and more abstractly, as in “String”), and the happy versus the miserable – an unmistakable underlying theme in each of the stories, as the title indicates.
The book is remarkable in its use of language, too: Spatz has an ear for pleasing rhythms, as well as a love of arresting words. In nearly every other story, starting with “Happy for You,” there is a striking reliance on repetition, especially alliteration. A few sample phrases will convey the extent of this sonic replication: “a woman in a wicker wheelchair waiting”; “spindly as spoon stems”; a “fierce faint buzz-buzz-thrum sound, harder, and harder again.” The effect is largely poetic, but at times it lends a sing-song, playful tone that is at odds with the stories’ serious content. Yet there is no escaping the fact that Spatz thrills to the power of words. The occasional economical description has the power to deliver a jolt, as when he describes pool water as “Jade made liquid.”
The prose may be occasionally over-stylized, the characters fairly homogeneous and relentlessly blue-collar, the plots often dreary marshes of loss and regret. Nonetheless, Spatz is an undeniable talent. He knows his characters through and through, and makes of their sadness a pervasive, bittersweet aroma lingering over all the stories. These working class tales, set largely in Washington State, might be seen as in the vein of Raymond Carver or Tobias Wolff, with faint traces of the work of Tom Perrotta or Lorrie Moore. The characters may not be half as happy as they dream they could be, but they muddle through in the real world, looking for second chances where they can.
About Gregory Spatz
Gregory Spatz is also the author of the novels Inukshuk (2012), Fiddler’s Dream (2006), and No One But Us (1995), and of previous short story collection Wonderful Tricks (2002). His stories have appeared in many publications, including The New Yorker and New England Review. The recipient of a Michener Fellowship, an Iowa Arts Fellowship, a Washington State Book Award, and a 2012 NEA Fellowship in literature, he teaches in the MFA program at Eastern Washington University in Spokane. Music is his twin passion: Spatz started playing the violin at age six and now plays the fiddle in the twice Juno-nominated bluegrass band John Reischman and the Jaybirds.
With thanks to Louise Crawford of Marian Brown PR and Victoria Barrett of Engine Books for arranging a PDF review copy for me.