Normal People Don't Live Like This
by Dylan Landis
Persea Books 2009, Paperback
awards: One of Newsday's Best Books of 2009
debut novel-in-stories, Normal People Don't Live Like This, was a finalist for the Grace Paley Award for Short Fiction. She has
published fiction in Bomb, Tin
American Nonrequired Reading
and has won a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the
Arts. A former journalist, Landis covered medicine for the New
Orleans Times-Picayune and
interior design for the Chicago
Tribune, and has
written ten books on decorating and other subjects. She lives in
with Dylan Landis
Levinson stared into her daughter’s top drawer, seeking folded
white cotton. Instead: a tangle of fuscia bikinis. Satin brassieres
in a psychedelic print – psychedelic, one of those Jimi Hendrix
drug words. Fishnet stockings, parrot-green.
Reviewed by Daniela I. Norris
Levinson knows more about life than she is willing to admit. Her
mother thinks of food as a necessary evil. Her girlfriends smoke, do
drugs and have miscarriages in the school toilets. Yet she is a good
girl from a good Jewish family – but not for long.
"Her mother cradled a teacup as if holding a dove. Toast cooled
before her. If Leah thought hard across the table, she might arrange
their confluence – fingers, toast. Toast, throat. Throat,
esophagus, stomach, bowel. Leah had assembled the Visible Woman. She
knew the route. Her spoon ticked three times against the side of her
Leah’s mother loves her, but their relationship is difficult. Her
grandmother Sophia is journeying on another dimension.
‘Please,’ her mother said. ‘If you could eat breakfast without
tapping. Just this once.’
Her father stared back and forth between them, looking newly amazed
every morning. His breakfast never gave him any trouble…
…'Sweetheart, let her tap, At least she eats.’
‘Mom eats,’ said Leah. ‘She just pukes it up after.’" (from
"Leah’s grandmother, Sophia Rose, washed and dried her dinner
plates, stacked them in the oven and set it on broil. She hid her
pearls in the toilet tank, where they coiled under a rubber flap and
created a perpetual flush.
‘Nine is green,’ said Grandma Rose. ’Four is red. Mint tasted
like flashes of light.’
Leah’s parents decided it was time. They said Leah could stay with
any friend she wanted. Oleander, said Leah…
…’I don’t see why you have to put her away,’ said Leah,
watching Helen fold tissue paper into her clothes – a winter-white
sweater, because fall came early upstate, and a herringbone silk
scarf. Helen hated wind in her hair." (from Rose)
In language which is partly-literary, partly taken straight from
high-school corridors and girls’ intimate conversations, Landis
takes the reader into the often-confused worlds of teenage girls in
the Upper West Side of New York City in the 1970’s.
"Angeline Yost keeps a switchblade in her sock… …Angeline Yost
did it in her parents’ bed and a week later they had crabs so bad
they were in their armpits.
The gospel of Angeline Yost is graven into desks with housekeys and
the blood of Bics; it is written in the glances of girls – low arcs
of knowing that span the hallways and ping off the metal lockers."
(from Rana Fegrina)
Angeline Yost becomes Leah’s friend, and accompanies her on her
coming-of-age journey. So do Oleander and her sister Pansy, who live
with their mother, Bonita, in one bedroom, while their dad lives in
the other – "a New York divorce". Leah’s mother, Helen, is
shocked when she first steps into their world. But then she distances
herself from the situation.
"’She’s probably got a lover,’ said Oleander. ‘She’s
probably in some hotel’.
What Nestor had was a tank of nitrous from Mt. Sinai, where he was an
…’I bring back the empties,’ said Nestor, gripping it with his
knees. ‘And air ain’t stealing, right, baby?’
He screwed on the regulator, turned a knob. The tank sighed once.
Oleander, lying on the sofa, lifted her head from his lap to watch.
It wasn’t fair, thought Leah, the way their bodies touched and
untouched without consequence, the way his arm brushed her collarbone
and then moved away without a rupture.
‘My mother is in France for work,’ said Leah, ‘and nitrous
oxide is not air.’" (from Hate)
This debut novel-in-stories, which is partly a coming-of-age tale,
partly an exploration of the inner world of teenage girls, is very
culture-specific - but has a definite literary quality to it. In
using beautifully crafted prose and appealing storytelling, Dylan
Landis successfully explores the book-title statement: Normal People
Don’t Live Like This. Apparently, in America, they do.
from this collection in Swink