Have you ever taken homemade food to a picnic just to have it ignored? Then you might recognize yourself in Vincent Chu’s story called “Ambrosia,” which appears in his first book of short fictions, Like a Champion. In it, our narrator’s girlfriend brings the sweet dessert to a barbecue with this result: “In the middle of the table sits the uneaten ambrosia, cubes of strange fruit drowning slow deaths in white glob, wincing under the summer sun.” But in this case, a simple sentence will turn the embarrassing situation around with unexpected results.
Chu, a Californian, is clever at turning situations around in these eighteen stories. Most of them were written while he lived in Germany, which became the setting for some of them. In “Overseas Club,” the main character Beatrice has moved from Bakersfield to Bavaria to teach English, and she’s not happy. The situation worsens when a woman named Bernie shows up and dampens any inroads Beatrice made toward being accepted by the other faculty. Jealousy ensues, and Beatrice has a bad feeling when she’s called into the head instructor’s office.
Another Germany-based story is titled “Hansaring.” In this scenario, our central characters Dean and Henrietta have been silent with each other, and Dean hopes that their train ride to see a movie will smooth things out. Chu includes details about Dean watching other passengers in order to keep from wondering what Henrietta is thinking: “It was not often [ . . . ] that he would get the opportunity to observe another person at the exact moment they finished a book, a big one at that.” By the time the couple arrive at their destination seven stops later, a change of plans is in order.
The follow-up story, “The Tenderloin,” has Dean and Henrietta living in San Francisco. Chu sets the scene:
The street was freshly coated in the first rain of summer and with it came all the smells that had baked into the concrete during June. The piss and bok choy were just surface-level, Dean knew, the real smells would need until morning to be reactivated [ . . . ]
Suspense sets in when Dean thinks he witnesses a kidnapping. The moral of this tale might be that doing the right thing may not always be the right thing to do.
Chu includes a couple of variations on standard storytelling form. “Recent Conversations” consists of text messages, and the one I found both funny and a little sad, “Be Sweet and Loving,” is an extended email from a mother to her adult son. Among her copious health complaints—itchy toes, another MRI, anxiety illness—she gets to the crux of her message that also involves her adult daughter Laura: “I pray one day you and Laura can move home. [ . . . ] I can occupy one room and the rest of the house is yours. Doesn’t that sound like a deal?”
Chu takes a different approach in a story blending running dialogue with sports action. Teenaged buddies are filming a backyard wrestling match for a class project in “Gory Special.” The title refers to a painful wresting move invented by Gory Guerrero. Here’s a portion of the skirmish:
Marv grabs me by the mane. The attack continues as choreographed. Tilt-the-world gut buster followed by an elbow drop. [ . . . ] “You told Angela Darasouk I was a loser,” says Marv. [ . . . ] “Don’t know what you’re talking about, Marv,” I say [ . . . ]. He pulls me up by the collar.
The book’s title story, “Like a Champion,” is the name of a toy and collectible store that’s going out of business. Georgie, the owner, is quite fond of Felicia, the FedEx delivery person, and gifts her with a fluffy white Beanie Baby. Meanwhile, other stores in town have been victimized by a cat burglar. Then it’s Like a Champion’s turn when the burglar makes off with the store’s entire stock of Beanie Babies. Georgie ponders possible thieves:
[He] went through flimsy suspect after flimsy suspect, from the Lima Boy to the newspaper delivery fellow to the weird scarf lady that came in Sundays and never bought anything. [ . . . ] There was only one name that kept floating to the top of his list [ . . . ] Felicia.
As you can imagine, suspicion tends to put a damper on relationships, but there may be hope for Georgie and Felicia after all.
Vincent Chu has succeeded in writing stories for everyone. For example, I know little about wrestling except seeing matches on TV when I was a kid, and I still liked “Gory Special.” Chu captures life’s rewards and challenges with a light and often humorous touch in Like a Champion. You’ll feel good after reading this book.