Following the extraordinary success of her novelVeronica, Mary Gaitskill returns with a luminous new collection of stories--her first in more than ten years. In “College Town l980,” young people adrift in Ann Arbor debate the meaning of personal strength at the start of the Reagan era; in the urban fairy tale “Mirrorball,” a young man steals a girl’s soul during a one-night stand; in “The Little Boy,” a woman haunted by the death of her former husband is finally able to grieve through a mysterious encounter with a needy child; and in “The Arms and Legs of the Lake,” the fallout of the Iraq war becomes disturbingly real for the disparate passengers on a train going up the Hudson--three veterans, a liberal editor, a soldier’s uncle, and honeymooners on their way to Niagara Falls. Each story delivers the powerful, original language, and the dramatic engagement of the intelligent mind with the craving body--or of the intelligent body with the craving mind--that is characteristic of Gaitskill’s fiction.
- New York Times Notable Books of the Year
Readers may find it difficult to adhere to the title's admonition as they navigate the devastating territory covered in Gaitskill's latest collection after PEN/Faulkner nominee Because They Wanted to. With "College Town, 1980," "Folk Song," and "A Dream of Men," the author revisits themes of sexual abuse and its resulting trauma. In "Mirror Ball," readers are treated to a hauntingly magical depiction of a one-night stand where, as the young couple climax, the girl offers her soul to the unwitting boy, with lonely repercussions. For this reviewer, the most powerful story is "The Arms and Legs of the Lake," in which Gaitskill uses a stream-of-consciousness style to take us inside the heads of Iraq War veterans, strangers on a train, struggling to reconnect with their humanity while violent images invade their psyches. While this collection won't be every reader's cup of tea, the author's exquisite use of language and metaphor is enough to recommend it for all libraries with a serious literary bent. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 11/15/08.]-Sally Bissell, Lee Cty. Lib. Syst., Fort Myers, FL Copyright 2009 Reed Business Information.
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March 22, 2009
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Excerpt from Don't Cry by Mary Gaitskill
Our first day in Addis Ababa we woke up to wedding music playing outside the hotel. We had traveled for 20 hours and we were deeply asleep. The music entered my sleep in the form of moving lights, like fireflies or animate laughter, in a pattern, but a loose and playful one. I was dreaming that I was with Thomas. In the dream, he was very young, and we were chasing a light that had come free of the others, running down a winding path with darkness all around.
When I woke at first I did not know where I was. The music seemed more real than the dingy room; its sound saturated me with happiness and pain. Then I saw Katya and remembered where we were and why. She was already up and standing at the window lifting a shade to peer out--the sun made a warm place on her skin and I felt affection for her known form in this unknown place. She turned and said, "Janice, there's weddings going on outside--plural!"
We went outside. All around our hotel were gardens, and in the gardens were crowds of people dressed in the bright colors of undiluted joy. Brides and grooms were wearing white satin, and the streets were lined with white limousines decked with flowers, and together with so much color, the white also seemed colorful. Little girls in red-and-white crinoline ran past, followed by a laughing woman. Everyone was laughing or smiling, and because I could not tell where the music came from, I had the sensation that it was coming directly from these smiling, laughing people. Katya turned to me and said, "Are we in heaven?"
I replied, "I don't know," and for a second I meant it.
My husband Thomas had died six months before the trip to Addis Ababa. The music that woke me that first day touched my grief even before I knew it was wedding music. Even in my sleep I could hear love in it; even in my sleep, I could hear loss. I stepped out of the hotel in a state of grief, but when I saw the brides and grooms in their happiness, wonder slowly spread through my grief. It was like seeing my past and a future that was no longer mine but that I was part of anyway.
In the dirty hotel restaurant we had dry brick-like croissants and lots of good fruit--papaya, mangoes, bananas, oranges, and pineapple. The coffee was burnt, so we decided to go to the espresso place we'd been told was just a few blocks away. We never found the place, although we walked a long time. At first, we walked on a crowded street made of pavement, with department stores, an Internet café, and a grocery with a big Magic Marker drawing (green and red) of fruit and vegetables in the window. Starving wandered freely. The pavement abruptly fell off and gave way to rocks. We saw another wedding party, in a Mercedes decked with rich-colored flowers, moving through a herd of donkeys, the herders lagging behind, talking on their cells. Beggars swarmed around us, shouting and showing us their deformed limbs, their blind eyes. We forgot our espresso. The rocky street gave way to dirt with pools of muddy water. Houses, patched together with tin, plastic, canvas and wood, bulged out, sagged in, lurched and leaned this way, then that. Beggars swarmed us, chanting. Wedding guests in gold pants and silky shirts pushed their broken car through slowly parting pedestrians. A little boy marched along blowing a horn; he was followed by a smaller boy, who was shouting and rhythmically shaking a clutch of bells on a strap. The smell of fresh shit rose up suddenly and mixed with the odors of sweat and cooked meat. An old woman seated in the roots of a giant tree sold bundled sticks and dresses mounted on smiling white mannequins. Trees made soft, blunt, deep green shapes with their boughs. Katya turned to me, her face dazed. "We'd better go back," she said. "We're getting lost."
Katya was in Ethiopia to adopt a baby; I was there to help her. Katya asked me to go with her because I am one of her oldest friends, going back to our waitressing days in Manhattan. She is a narrow little woman with a broad, bossy air: ugly-beautiful, full lower lip a bit too pendulous, hips and breasts small but highly charged, black hair big, curly, and shining with secreted oil. The restaurant we worked in was run by Mafia thugs, and they would sometimes come in before the shift to do coke with us. The head thug really liked Katya; he would confide in her and ask her advice and she would console him and boss him around.
In those days I was putting myself through a writing program; she was having experiences. I got married and turned into an English professor who publishes stories in quarterly magazines. She started various businesses, which she either failed at or got bored with and sold. She had family money to begin with, and in spite of the failures along the way, she has actually amassed some money of her own. She now runs a boutique in D.C., which is where she lives. She has made some Ethiopian friends, one of whom, a woman named Meselu, runs a "big woman's" store across the street from Katya's business.
Katya had been thinking of adoption for some time; she didn't want to go through an agency in America because it pissed her off that while agencies give the birth mother full disclosure regarding the adoptive parent, there is no reciprocity. She didn't want to go through a foreign agency because most of them require a two-year wait, and she felt that, at forty-nine, she was already too old. She learned through someone on the Internet--a woman in California who'd already adopted an Ethiopian child--that independent adoptions there were relatively easy. It helped, of course, that Meselu could hook her up with people in Addis Ababa, including a driver named Yonas, who specialized in clients there to adopt.
When Katya asked me if I would go to Africa with her, I said yes, because Thomas had died four months earlier and I had still not gone back to teaching. In the emptiness of my life, it didn't seem to matter what I did; between doing nothing and doing something, it seemed better to do something. Thomas and I had never had children, and, maybe without thinking about it, I wanted to help my friend give a child safe passage. Katya had never been lucky with men and I knew she had always envied my marriage; perhaps I was hoping to balance my loss with something good for her. In any case, before I left I took Thomas' wedding ring from the altar I had made in our bedroom, took my own ring from my finger, and put them both on a gold chain around my neck.