Tinged with mystery and magical realism, Brian Booker’s Are You Here for What I’m Here For? is an outstanding collection of self-contained short stories with themes of sleeplessness, sadness, and sickness. The characters, setting, and point of view vary from each story, which demonstrates the wide range of Booker’s fiction writing skills. Furthermore, the stories occur in different, sometimes undeterminable time periods, adding flavor and movement to the reading experience.
I particularly enjoyed the researched details in many of the stories. In the titular story, a woman with a potentially life threatening illness vacations at a resort. Though many events happen throughout the story, the striking images from the protagonist’s snorkeling experience made me desire to put on my own mask:
The sun warmed her back. She drifted into deeper water. From a distance the reef looked like heaps of rubble. But up close, you saw the rubble was clothed in an infinitely variegated patchwork of substance, repulsive and alluring. Everything seemed to resemble something else: chalk and cheese, velvet and slime, needles and sponge and coarse nubbling. Her eyes grazed over jeweled deformities, stealthy lumps that quivered into motion. At the sense of her approach, tiny vermilion feathers waving atop barnacles sucked themselves down in their holes.
Another one of Booker’s strengths in the stories is crafting clear settings, even in brief moments such as on a train or in a kitchen. These vivid places help readers feel grounded in the story and prepared for the strangeness that lies ahead. In “Here to Watch Over Me,” the protagonist drives through a snowy evening to see his son:
A silhouette of mountain loomed over the turnpike. Guest glided into the fluorescent tunnel. Then a second mountain, a second tunnel. Sparse snowflakes, set aflame in the headlights, shot toward him and vanished. Heat from the vents was lulling him so he cracked the window. A blast of cold air refreshed him; he could see stars above the dark hills: he craved a cigarette.
The most fantastical story in the collection, “Gumbo Limbo” reads like a fairy tale about a city “between land and fog and the gray-green waves.” A blind boy named Liam befriends a sea creature, Gumbo Limbo is plagued by endless rain, and the townspeople fall under the spell of mob mentality as they search for a mermaid. The dialogue is as foreboding as it is enchanting and enhances the fairy tale wonder of the story:
“Hi,” said the creature. “Hi,” said the boy. “What are you doing here?” The boy bent his ear close, for the creature seemed to speak in the quiet susurrus of the surf itself. “There is nowhere else,” it said. “No farther to go. The sea keeps putting me up here, always at night. Always at night.” The creature sounded melancholy to Liam. “Are you cold?” the boy asked. “I start to forget what it’s like to be in the water,” it said. “And the air is cold. But I also forget that it comes again, the tide, and takes me back in. Then I remember water, and I’m not cold. But the next night it sends me up again, to the edge, where I’m cold.”
Are You Here for What I’m Here For? rings with memorable characters, scenes, and settings. Brian Booker’s magical realism reminds me of “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” by Gabriel García Márquez—rich with melancholic truths and mystery. Booker’s story “Gumbo Limbo,” if not the entire collection of stories, will surely sit high on my recommended list of stories that are literary, magical, and strange.