Reviewed by David Woodruff
Allison Amend’s first collection of stories, Things That Pass for Love, is one I’d recommend to anyone who wants disturbing, polished fiction with characters we might recognize ourselves in. Although the situations and settings are diverse, and the literary styles widely differing (compare the chronological academic style of Carry the Water, Hustle the Hole to the lexicon-like antinomies of The Janus Gate), what remains constant is the need to connect.
Unfortunately for these characters, the nature of the connection often falls short of love and one settles for a less-than-ideal mate. Here’s the narrator of the story, Sometimes It’s Like That, summing up what her future will be like with her deadbeat mate:
Despite the disparaging conditions that Amend’s characters often face, (and sometimes do not completely understand) many of them still strive. The narrator/grammar school teacher of Dominion Over Every Erring Thing, tries to teach class and instill a sense of value for life, while planes above drop the bodies of illegal immigrants who froze to death in the air. What’s ironical here is that the students seem more hardened to this everyday occurrence than the teacher. As one student puts it, “It ain’t no thing, Miss Gold.” To make things more problematic, the principal herself doesn’t believe that the dropping of the bodies from planes is a big thing. Except for Miss Gold, whose name perfectly captures her essence, the students and principal have accepted the absurdity of these deaths as something no more tragic than rainfall. At the end of the story, the teacher takes the same student by the wrist and marches him down to the principal’s office after discovering he killed her guinea pig.
Where Amend excels is in characterization. Her characters are often a cross between the dark impulses of Joyce Carol Oates and the fresh air levity of Lorrie Moore, with the wit of Beckett. When reading this collection, I often felt her characters were sitting across from me, that’s how alive she makes them.
The most chilling and unforgettable character for me is the unreliable narrator of The Cult of Me. The story centers around an ex-Vietnam vet who “collects information about cults for the government.” We’re told he’s not able to have sex because of a war wound, and the wound is far more than physical. He attends garage sales to attract cult members and gain information about their methods. He’s also tormented by the memory of the brutal slaughter of a Vietnamese woman, and in one dream, her face is transformed into the new woman he met at a garage sale, whom he suspects needs him in some way. Like him, she is emotionally crippled. At the end of the story, he hands her over to a cult, and she, along with some twenty other pregnant women, are found dead by suicide.
Irony also abounds in these stories. In And Then There Was Claire, the narrator, attending the funeral of his ex-lover, finds out from a woman that Claire might have been more sexually satisfied with a female rather than with him. In The World Tastes Good, the girl narrator has her sexual awakening with a gay man. In A Personal Matter, the late middle-aged protagonist, who has a grown family of his own, takes his young illegitimate son to go pumpkin-picking to the rebuke of his own family.
If pressed to find a flaw in this collection, which would be hard, I’d say that some of her characters, such as the narrator of Sometimes It’s Like That, have already settled into an acquiescence that things can get no better. She’s content, at least on the surface with her boyfriend, who would rather sleep than have sex. At one point, she tells her brother’s girlfriend that neither she nor her brother are the kind to fall in love. And some of the stories are not as up to par as others. I felt Bluegrass Banjo, although well-done, was too predictable, and too reminiscent of Joyce Carol Oates.
Otherwise, I would heartily recommend this stunning collection to anyone who likes character-driven stories with no easy solutions, but filled with imagination and empathy.
Read one of the stories from this collection on FiveChapters.com.
Publisher: OV Books (Dzanc Books)
Publication Date: 2008
First collection?: Yes
Book website: Facebook
Author bio: Born in Chicago, Illinois, Allison Amend attended Stanford University and graduated with an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her work has appeared in One Story, Black Warrior Review, StoryQuarterly, Bellevue Literary Review, the Atlantic Monthly, Prairie Schooner, and Other Voices. Things That Pass for Love is her first published book and has been named one of the ten best collections of short fiction for 2008 by the Kansas City Star!
Read an interview with Allison Amend
Buy this book (used or new) from:
And...don't forget your local booksellers and independent book shops! Visit IndieBound.org to find an independent bookstore near you in the US
If you liked this book you might also like....