Margaret Malone’s debut short story collection visits places we all recognize but don’t always think about or allow a second thought. Most likely you will find kindred spirits in these pages and acknowledge situations you may have forgotten or tried to repress. A case in point, the title story, People Like You, finds a young couple (Cheryl and Bert) invited to a friend’s surprise party. “Friend” is a loose term as the narrator explains, “we have no friends,” she confesses, “we have acquaintances from work, or old friends who live in other cities, or people who used to be our friends who we either borrowed money from and never repaid or who we just never bother to call anymore because we decided we either don’t like them or we’re too good for their company. We are not perfect.”
Reluctantly they decide to go. “We have to go. We never go anywhere. We are going.” You have been to parties like this. Rooms full of strangers or vaguely familiar faces. Small talk hits a low when one of the guests begins to talk about his Grand Am. That’s when you begin to wish maybe you should have stayed home. But it’s too late.
Cheryl is reminded of her currently unfertile state by a pregnant guest who arrives. She thinks to herself, trying to find a way to say to the expectant mother “if I wash my hands can I touch your big belly?” And then hopes “because some of your babyness might rub off on me.” Every woman seems pregnant but her.
Bert begins hitting the vodka. They left their birthday gifts at home. The room is too crowded to move about. Could they even leave if they wanted to? Even the guest of honor has yet to arrive. “Great party,” says Cheryl to the hostess.
Have you been to this party too? Margaret Malone’s eye for the mundane makes the dull vivid. Bert is anxious because he is missing the Simpsons. Cheryl is undecided. “I want to go. And I don’t want to go. At home everything will be the same.” They are stuck in social hell.
Finally, they escape and head home. “Silence in the car except for the tires fast against the asphalt, the balloon [from the party] rubbing hollow against the roof, and the two of us breathing. We will not get lost. Him, driving. Me, sitting there.”
I see these two in an Edward Hopper painting as they head home, alone in their twin solitudes.
I gave Malone’s book the public transportation test, reading it while I rode to work. Distractions abound on my rides; there are fellow travelers having solitary conversations or slumped passengers who are either sleeping or dead. One day a rider showed me his fingers which we bent backwards. Difficult reading conditions.
I opened Malone’s book and was absorbed. The surrounding chaos vanished. Any book that can do that garners high praise. Looking up I realized I was in one of her stories, a bus ride which was usually a dada caravan, could easily be the subject of her pen. I love it when writing helps us notice what we notice. There was certainly plenty of material on this bus ride. Malone passed the bus test with flying colors.
Malone’s stories run the emotional spectrum, ranging from comic, such as in her story, Saving the Animals, in which the narrator’s boss has an eccentric relationship with a goose, to the profound, Yes, in which a teenage girl on the verge of trapping herself in a life of drudgery realizes she can say no to such an endgame. These stories made me laugh and think and pay attention to the details in my own life. I can picture Weed Hopper (David Carradine in Kung-Fu for you youngsters) being told these stories as parables for his Zen ascension. The stories in this collection don’t slap you in the face with an Aesop-like moral ending but rather leave you with a hmmm, yes, that’s right kind of feeling. Of course it is fine to disagree with any conclusions these stories may conjure in you—that’s a plus too. It is good to know what you are for as well as what you are against.
Marc Allen Cunningham has founded a promising venue with his Atelier 26 Books Press. Keep an eye on his people. And put a post-it note on your forehead with Margaret Malone’s name on it. You won’t want to miss her next act.