Hard Lessons in the Business of Living
Rita Ciresi’s short stories are rich with offbeat humor, a lively irreverence, and an absolute lack of sentimentality. Author of Pink Slip, Blue Italian, and Sometimes I Dream in Italian, Ciresi’s debut collection was recently awarded the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Ciresi is a fitting winner, for her economy of language, fast, easy dialogue, and dark humor are all reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor.
Like O’Connor, Ciresi turns a magnifying glass on the most vulnerable moments in her characters’ lives and relationships and lingers there. There are no false or forced epiphanies here, just a detailed examination of the wounds ordinary people thoughtlessly inflict on one another out of sadness, love, desperation, desire, or their general unhappiness with everyday living. Using clean prose and images that belie the havoc and distress lurking beneath their actions, Ciresi’s flawed, quirky, and ultimately sympathetic characters show us how an unrealistic attachment to fantasies can lead to destruction. Her stories implore the reader to face up to the realities of life, harsh and unforgiving as they may be.
In “Silent Partner,” a haunted Vietnam veteran takes up with a young girl–”a clean slate of naivete”–whose innocence he is drawn to but resents. Tortured by memories of war, he uses his despair to punch holes in her optimism, slowly dismantling her budding hopes and dreams. As the relationship becomes more and more infantilizing, his attachment to verbal abuse constitutes both his devotion and his discontent. Hell-bent on his own emotional destruction, he steers his young girlfriend into behavior with serious consequences, forcing her to accommodate his every need and ridiculing her for meeting these demands. He wallows and broods, cheats and lies, wracked by guilt and rage in equal amounts, his long-ago fantasies of happiness lost somewhere in Vietnam, the loss played out over and over again in a seedy apartment complex in Florida. At the height of the young man’s emotional despair, Ciresi uses her dry wit as a sarcastic dagger: “Where was God when you stared into an empty refrigerator at night?” There is danger, the author warns, in taking our misery too seriously and using it to destroy others’ lives.
In “Resurrection,” a boy learns early on in life that happiness itself involves setting aside the expectation of complete fulfillment in love. Sidestepping traditional youthful fantasies, the boy moves straight to the more realistic model of companionship: “I longed to grow up. But if I couldn’t grow up and feel good about myself, I would settle for having someone who accepted and wanted me.” Derided as strange and unromantic when he is a child, 20 years later, in the companion story “Second Coming,” this sentiment is right on the mark, as the grown man has made no progress in his views. The practical attitude of love he had as a child extends now to his adult opinions of marriage; he will marry because “potential headaches, possible blisters, even the risk of death itself suddenly seemed preferable to the silence of a solitary life.” He has come to no new conclusions about the nature of love. Neither, Ciresi seems to be saying, should we.
Dissatisfied, imperfect love is the subject once more in “The End of the Season,” a story that demonstrates how a damaged relationship can become the medium for partial redemption, even if it does not fulfill traditional notions of happiness. Questioning her outwardly loving marriage, a middle-aged woman muses that “there was a big difference between love and like.” She mourns the loss of the “heedlessness, carelessness” and “maudlin dramatics” that characterized her previous love affairs. Ciresi has little time or patience for these emotions. Although the character insists, “I didn’t want a compromise,” for Ciresi, compromise is exactly what life and love is all about. We are ill advised if we forget it.
Problematic as these notions of love may appear to romantic sensibilities, “Dutch Wife” is a cautionary tale about the dangers of living exclusively in our dreams, remaining willfully blind to the present reality. In the story, an awkward, bookish young man is fascinated with the idea of frontier life–he dreams of hard physical labor and isolated, prairie landscapes. He does not dream of adventures in Europe or Africa, but in Midwestern locales–”Indiana held more appeal to him than Madagascar or Mozambique.” He dreams of becoming a rugged frontier man, faithfully accompanied by a solid, forbearing wife with wide hips and a simple mind. When he finally travels to the barren, windswept countryside of South Dakota, he meets with the unexpected realities of modern prairie life for which he is entirely unprepared: gossiping, small-minded neighbors, impossibly cold weather, and one inquisitive, manipulative farm girl who threatens to single-handedly determine his future. The stunning end of this story is the strongest statement Ciresi makes against paltry, paper-thin romantic notions of love. Because they simply cannot with-stand reality, they are not worth entertaining.
Although Ciresi makes no apologies for the “tough love” treatment of her characters, she does recognize innocents when she sees them. In “Life Lines,” the despair of a young girl already jaded by the drag of poverty is not told with humor, but stoically reported as simply unbearable. In the midst of a dangerous game of power with her boss at a dead-end, minimum wage job, the girl notices “the box fan slicing the sunset into a million slivers of light on the walls and ceiling.” Pages of snappy dialogue are punctuated by simple, haunting images. These appropriate and well-placed descriptions of a depressing, deteriorating landscape tell us that these characters live with the real and constant threat of danger. Reading Ciresi’s portrait of the girl’s bitter, exhausted mother is like peering into the young woman’s own future. In such an environment, facing an inevitable end, the girl learns the sad truth that “you can pass off being happy when really you’re miserable inside.” The graceful writing communicates Ciresi’s deep pity for these resilient characters, who long for escape routes that will never come. In this story more than any other, we leave the characters with their pride and self-respect firmly intact.
In the title story, Ciresi suggests that a deep attachment to what we fear most is what commits us most firmly and tragically to the fiction of true and perfect love. The main character, a high-energy, free-spirited woman who “loathed her history, and at the same time felt superior to others because of it,” decides to have a child with her quiet, mild-mannered husband in order to stave off feelings of mortality. It’s an unpleasant understanding of the motivations behind parenting, but not an unrealistic one. This self-involved, creatively manic young woman becomes rapt with the thought of this baby, of this life stretching out beyond her. As she focuses on this other being who is entirely dependent on her attention and devotion, she becomes freed, if only briefly, from her petty concerns and obsessions about her work, her body, and her history. She finally does as Ciresi desires–she gets over herself and begins living in the present. She is no longer exclusively focused on her own tortured imagination or self-interested desires. In other words, she grows up.
Ciresi’s stories tend to leave the reader with lowered expectations of humanity, but these are still infused with a raw hope. We know that humans are cruel and that life can be miserable. We know that “clutter and chaos would always be tucked somewhere below the surface.” It is this mess, this jumble of human desires and wishes and failures, that Ciresi delights in. This is it, her stories seem to say, love and life are only about compromise and getting by, about giving in and growing up. Her characters’ main flaws are that they realize this too late or not at all. Speaking from tightly woven, clean blocks of prose and in pitch-perfect dialogue, Ciresi’s characters have sharp edges and manifold flaws. But it is in their struggle that the people in Ciresi’s stories make themselves appealing; for even as they are in the process of failing, they remain hopeful that things will turn out differently. Sounds like most of us.
Rita Ciresi’s characters are not allowed to live in their fantasies, wallowing in discontent. Instead, in these stories, people must simply get on with the messy, often brutal business of living–the beautiful discovery is that harsh reality, however disappointing and imperfect, is often better than the well-worn fantasy used to shut out the real world. A useful lesson for us all perhaps, and one with which Flannery O’Connor would certainly agree. Ciresi’s characters face the facts. They get on with it and get real. And Mother Rocket keeps us rooting for those characters–and for ourselves–up to the very last word.
Observer intern Emily Rapp Seitz is a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin.