Trickle-Down Timeline
 by Cris Mazza

Red Hen Press, 2009
First Collection? No

" Although, later, the '80s would be called – usually by patronizing college students who’d grown up in soft middle-class homes – the era of superficiality and decadence, some people never got to become yuppies or conspicuous consumers or marital swingers or weekend cokeheads. "

Reviewed by Loree Westron

In the 1980s, the Reagan administration claimed that tax breaks for corporations and the nation's highest earners would spur economic growth and allow wealth to "trickle-down" to those on the lower end of the economic scale. It was a lie, of course, and led only to the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer at a dramatically increased rate. For anyone who graduated from high school, went to university, got married, and generally came of age in the United States in the 1980s, Cris Mazza's collection Trickle-Down Timeline will bring back memories which many of us have tried to forget.

"For ten or twenty years after leaving home," the narrator of What If tells us, "there's little nostalgia about where you came from." As young adults, loose upon the wider world, the hometowns we moved away from – some of us as soon as we possibly could – held little attraction. The same can be said of the '80s. We were anxious to break free of that decade, with no intention of looking back. When we finally do, however, there is an odd fascination with what we find.

The title piece (it can't really be called a story) opens the collection with a review of the 1980s and, with a satirical edge worthy of "The Daily Show", highlights some of the decade's most ridiculous political moments. After two terms of George W. Bush, when buffoonery reached new heights, it's easy to forget the slapstick comedy of the Reagan years: in 1981, the new administration attempted to reclassify ketchup so that it could be counted as a vegetable in school lunches; in 1984, while preparing to make a speech, Reagan quipped, "My fellow Americans, I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes."

In 1986, a spokesman stated that the president knew nothing about the sale of arms to Iran or the funding of anti-Communist rebels in Nicaragua on one day, and on the next claimed "The President knows what's going on." A month later, the spokesman suggested that Reagan might have approved the arms deal "while he was under sedation." Reagan later admitted that he had authorised the sale of arms to Iran, but within a month he changed his mind – apparently remembering that he had not. Meanwhile, the national minimum wage resolutely stuck at $3.35 an hour during the 1980s, while the overall cost of living rose by forty-eight per cent. In a Christmas speech in 1983, presidential advisor Ed Meese claimed that Scrooge had received "bad press" and throughout his time in Washington, he blamed the poor, unemployed and homeless for being so "by choice." Some people, it seemed, were not availing themselves of the wealth that was trickling down from the top.

Divided into years, the rest of the book explores pivotal moments in the lives of their emotionally fragile and isolated characters. In What Satisfies People (1980), Lee is tormented by memories of an old relationship and unable to build a new life with his wife. In Disguised as Suicide (1981), Jan stops entering beauty pageants to pursue what she sees as a more meaningful career as a hospital administrator only to find her offers of help continually rejected. In The Three Screwdrivers (1982), a woman has a history of falling for the wrong guy, but when her up-until-now platonic friend declares his love she tells him, "No one ever said stuff like that to me," before adding, "I wish you were someone else. Why couldn't you be anyone else."

Love, it seems, was complicated in the 1980s. The appearance of a mysterious immune-deficiency disease in '81 put a damper on sexual liberation, and whether from a lack of opportunity or experimentation, sexual relationships in Trickle-Down are decidedly strained. Each Other's History (1984) details a woman's life-long passion for her hometown baseball team and her short-lived and sexless marriage. Damaged by the iniquities of Little League baseball and a dearth of high school romance, she has never quite grown up or learned how to go about living.

Sexlessness, in terms of both doing without and being uninterested, is a common impediment in these stories. So too are extra-marital affairs but there is little joy to be found in these relationships, either. The characters are stifled and stymied, repressed, suppressed, hung-up and damaged, lacking the imagination and courage for adult relationships.

Two stories, in particular, stand out in this strong collection, What If (1985) and Cookie (1989). Narrated in the second-person, What If highlights the devastating ecological effects that can occur when too many people move into a landscape which can't sustain them:
"The number of residents had easily quintupled since the grid of streets and sewer lines and water pipes and single-family homes had first been sketched on blue tissue paper. Firemen jumped from trucks and attached hoses to hydrants only to be met with a thin trickle oozing from the nozzle they aimed at the next fully engulfed house."
When your house is among those that burn, the devastation becomes personal, and for an artist who loses everything she has created, every poem, every sculpture, the loss is nearly complete.

The final story of the decade, Cookie exposes the endemic emotional isolation of the suburbs. When an East European family moves into the house next door, Nan wonders about the little girl whose only word seems to be "hi" but makes no attempt to welcome them. Later, the girl learns to say "cookie," a word she repeats at volume on a random but frequent basis. Lacking communication skills of her own, misunderstandings and conflicts arise, and it's only through the courage of the child's mother that true neighbourliness begins to emerge.

It is a shame that the book is marred by poor editing – multiple misplaced punctuation, "eminent" instead of "imminent", typos, and an absent scene-break – for it deserves better. Trickle-Down Timeline gives us a backward view of a decade many of us remember with mixed feelings, and these stories reflect those complicated and divisive years with humour and insight.

Loree Westron is studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Chichester and her work has appeared in US and UK journals and anthologies. She is on the editorial board of Short Fiction in Theory and Practice, and is the administrator of the Thresholds short story forum. s
Loree's other Short Reviews: Sherman Alexie "Ten LIttle Indians"

Eddie Chuculate "Cheyenne Madonna"
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Cris Mazza grew up in southern California and is now a director of the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She has written over a dozen books including the short story collections Former Virgins (1997) and Is It Sexual Harassment Yet? (1998)

Read an interview with Cris Mazza