Open to the What-If
One solid reason for choosing to review books is for the possibility of being blown completely back in your chair on getting a book you didn’t see coming. The frequency of this occurrence isn’t of course all that great: lots of times the books that hit real hard send their own little tremors forward, warnings like those that precede earthquakes though, certainly, some of this has to do with how attuned a reviewer might be to the larger book publishing industry. Yet they do happen: these mind-blowing moments, these devastating reads. They end up feeling not just joyful and exciting—as all good reads do—but almost magic for how they feel to expose the world, offering almost a parallel narrative of the day-to-day that hints at how much we don’t notice, at how many amazements there might actually be.
Why They Run The Way They Do
(Simon & Schuster, 2016)
This is a sort of vague and unfair way to begin addressing the glory that is Why They Run The Way They Do by Susan Perabo, a collection I fell for as of the fifth page. The narrator is describing her mother, and the following sentence should—as far as I’m concerned—be taught in every fiction workshop in the country as a perfect example of description. “[M]y mother was a dodger from way back. In supermarket aisles, she was always the one scooting her cart around to make room for everybody else.” This, I’d come to find, is perfectly representative of what Perabo does so shockingly well: her stories are stuffed with broad characterization, so much that, in the best ways, the stories are almost never about much more than the characters themselves. If you’re on the make for a book of hard-charging plot-driven engines, look elsewhere.
However, some clarification: there’s a difference between books which delve deep into specific characters, making the reader, by read’s end, completely wrapped around the central character. Such books are great, obviously. But then there are those other character-driven books which feature sentences which read as nearly effortless summations or encapsulations of characters (my own personal favorite of this is still Holden describing his brother’s red hair in the first eight pages of Catcher in the Rye). Perabo nails descriptions so tightly the collection feels almost endlessly deep; none of the stories even feel as if they end as much as they conclude, a penetrating gaze moving on to new characters, new scenes.
And what characters, what scenes. Here’s how the book’s second story, “Michael the Armadillo,” begins:
They’d made it through all the Michaels, Carrie and Dan believed, made it through Michael Jordan and Michael Douglas and Michael Moore and Michael J. Fox, made it through the terrible summer when Michael Phelps won all those gold medals in swimming, and then the next terrible summer, when Michael Jackson died on every channel for days and days, dodged a bullet when Michaels, the crafts store, canceled plans to open in their town (that would have been hell—Dan drove by the strip mall every day on his way to work). Once at a library program when Chloe was two they’d been forced to sing “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” but Dan was in the bathroom and missed the whole sordid tune, and by the time he returned everyone was mechanically rolling their fists around to “Wheels on the Bus.”
God almighty, look at that. Two long sentences, and the reader only knows that this poor couple has some terrible relationship to the name Michael. I read the first page entirely sure they’d lost a son, perhaps because I’m a parent and am primed for such stories of agony; and so my delight was monumental when, on the next page, Dan and Carrie’s daughter gets a stuffed armadillo in the mail from her grandmother and, on seeing him, immediately names him Michael. You don’t even find out for awhile longer why Carrie and Dan have such an aversion to the name, and the surprise is worth here keeping unrevealed. The point of the name’s mysterious charge isn’t remotely what the story’s about; instead, the story—like many of Perabo’s stories—is about this weird non-negotiable, chancy things that befall our lives which we must then navigate. What happens when your dog dies while your son is away with your divorced wife, and you promised your son you’d bury the dog together? Is there anything wrong with keeping the dead dog in the freezer? What happens when you try to revise history to allow for more time with a loss you can’t otherwise confront—the loss of a parent, for instance? What happens when—as in the first story, the one with the knockout encapsulation of the mother called “The Payoff”—you spy some of your teachers engaged in sex acts and try to blackmail them? What happens when you try to make sense of the random awful things that happen, like college students falling to their deaths?
It would be a stretch to claim that art could or should teach us, certainly. Nobody wants that. But it does seem the best art should at some level engage in something like a soul-advising. Some of this stuff can be overt, of course; good luck reading George Saunders without feeling like you've got a serious obligation in trying to be less full of shit and more aware. This is good; this, I’d argue, is what fiction’s supposed to be about. And what you get, if you’re smart enough to rush out and secure a copy of Susan Perabo’s shockingly great Why They Run the Way They Do, is a collection of beautiful stories that each, in their way, encourage us to entertain more what-if in our life. A dying mother says “We lucked out...[w]e’re a lucky lot, all of us.” Again, the character saying that is dying. Maybe your heart’s already large enough not to need such reminders—not that everything’s beautiful or wonderful, not even close—but that, even in awfulness, even if there’s more mystery and confusion than we’d wish, there’s still goodness, still luck. For all the rest of us, whose heart could always use more such lessons, Susan Perabo’s new collection should be required reading.