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At or Near the Surface

Jenny Pritchett’s characters in At or Near the Surface live lives that, on the surface, would seem comfortable, secure, normal – lives that are generally good enough. But Pritchett opens the heads and hearts of these women to find that, in one way or another, they feel unfulfilled and dissatisfied with their lives. They long, they hurt, they are hungry. Whether they find themselves cycling through an unbreakable daily routine, at the crumbling edge of an unhappy marriage, unable to appease the stalking guilt from their past, or dealing with the surreal grief of a miscarriage, each of Pritchett’s characters must decide what they will or will not do with the rest of their lives.

Jenny Pritchett’s characters in At or Near the Surface live lives that, on the surface, would seem comfortable, secure, normal – lives that are generally good enough. But Pritchett opens the heads and hearts of these women to find that, in one way or another, they feel unfulfilled and dissatisfied with their lives. They long, they hurt, they are hungry. Whether they find themselves cycling through an unbreakable daily routine, at the crumbling edge of an unhappy marriage, unable to appease the stalking guilt from their past, or dealing with the surreal grief of a miscarriage, each of Pritchett’s characters must decide what they will or will not do with the rest of their lives.

It doesn’t take long to understand why At or Near the Surface was chosen by Tin House managing editor Holly MacArthur as the winner of the 2008 Michael Rubin Chapbook Award. Pritchett’s abilities are many: moving fluidly from the pathos of the everyday to the surrealism of crushing loss, and managing to treat subject matter like miscarriage, infidelity, and coming-of-age in fresh and compelling ways. Pritchett does an excellent job of getting inside the heads of both her female and male characters, avoiding easy, sentimental stereotypes.

I enjoyed reading “Born and Raised” again, which first appeared in Salt Hill (see my NewPages review), a well-crafted story about a woman’s sea-deep grief after a miscarriage, which could have been a disastrous self-parody in less capable hands. Also well-handled was “Adultery,” which explores a young couple’s struggle with past and current infidelities. In “Thieves,” nine-year-old Lucy recounts her recent dysfunctional years with her klepto mother, Pam, who becomes increasingly incapable of taking care of Lucy. In the end, Lucy and Pam both know where things are headed:

Mom and I are in the big grocery store in our neighborhood. She’s putting a jar of peanut butter down her dress. “Mom,” I say, “it looks like you have a jar of peanut butter down your dress.”
[. . .] Five minutes later I run into Mom by the fruit juice. She’s dropped something else down her dress. [. . .] “What do you think?” she asks. She laughs, and the jars clink together. [. . .] This is the least amount we’ve stolen. We don’t need peanut butter; we don’t eat peanut butter. The jars show through Mom’s dress. I know what’s going to happen.

In “Heat,” a series of four vignettes, Pritchett renders the vaporizing pain and sadness of four people in an apartment building in a way that manages to evoke a somber beauty at the same time.

Among my favorites are the series of “Honey” stories, pieces about a woman named Honey and her husband, Mike. The stories are often surreal, but well-grounded and juxtaposing nicely with the rest of the stories in the collection. “At or Near the Surface,” which opens the book, features a Honey who sees the world in its elemental states, its physics and its cycles, and Honey herself is part of this eternal return in a Groundhog Day sort of way, where she has learned to live, Zen-like, in each moment, and finishes in a serene release, leaping from the top of a tree, certain that “she will do it again tomorrow.”

In “The Other Honey,” another Honey shows up and begins living in Honey and Mike’s house. The other Honey takes all of the food out of the fridge and leaves it to spoil. The other Honey wears Honey’s clothes. The other Honey moves all of the furniture around, piles it up along the walls, and does headstands in the space she has created. The other Honey is cute and strange and funny, until she really cramps their style and Honey sees that she is being replaced by the other Honey. The other Honey has to get out. Then, in “More,” Honey gets an insatiable hunger, as in Mike cooks day and night for weeks and Honey eats as quickly as Mike can cook it, until neither Mike nor the house can handle any more.

Jenny Pritchett is one of those writers whose voice is so distinct and so her own that any material in her hands gets spun into gold. Even though I’ll never forget its contents, At or Near the Surface is one of those few short story collections that will always be within reach for quick and easy reference/rereading. Pritchett’s debut will appeal to a wide range of readers, from those who prefer grounded realism as well as those who are stimulated by forays into the surreal side of everyday experience. I am eagerly awaiting future books from this talented and imaginative writer.

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