Forever keen on unearthing the wisdom within a tale, I embarked upon the reading of Whiskey, Etc. with the intention of gleaning some unmitigated truth, some absolutist’s insight into the complexity of the human condition. I even hoped to contain the elements of Sherrie Flick’s style within a box that was compact enough to easily carry. Yet, whatever it was that I deemed certain within one story dissolved the moment I turned the page to begin the next. The tangible was superseded by the ethereal; literality became symbolism. Just when I determined that Flick had set out to present snapshots of a single moment in time, unencumbered by the weight of meaning, I’d encounter a piece laden with melancholy or reminiscence. Plot was usurped by character, then character by plot.
Flick’s “snapshot” pieces, overall, tend to be the most impactful in their brevity, for her adeptness at word choice rendered me awestruck time and time again. Within “Dinner Party,” the reader can hear so vividly the murmurous din around the communal table; while, in “Morning Coffee,” that same reader experiences “an explosion of flesh and seeds—earth and sun” within the bite of a vine-ripened tomato, picked from her very own garden.
However, as I continued reading, I discovered that Flick is all the more inclined to burrow cleanly into the mind, the psyche of her characters, whether they happen to be fantasizing about murdering their ex or contemplating the forgoing of a day’s masturbation upon heading to the shower.
Within “Screen Door,” the real and unreal shift and blur until one surrenders to that which is written between the lines. Eerily disconcerting in its palpable sense of disillusionment, “Microwave” walks the reader through one woman’s deep-seeded desire to “walk out, away, into the sunset, as the credits roll.” Then, there is “The Paperboy,” which left me stunned, intrigued and, above all, utterly mortified.
Flick’s stories are endlessly quotable, a characteristic which is apt to leave the reader running about with book in hand, stopping anyone willing to do so when she calls out, “Hey, listen to this!”
In “Learning to Drink Coffee in Idaho,” an East Coast salesman, profoundly out of his element, explains, “My small speech fell like a dead bird in the middle of the line cook’s grill.” Then, there is “Sorrel,” which begins by explaining, “The gray sky pushed down, making the world contract, come inside, where Elizabeth’s oatmeal pan had boiled dry.” Within “After,” Lisa remembers, “Back in high school Joe could put together car engines, and later, in one of those car’s backseats, he could fix a girl so she felt brand new.”
Indeed, Flick has a way of making every word count. Thus, her impeccable descriptions allow lifetimes as well as solitary defining moments to be communicated within remarkably little space.
In “Practice,” Jolene’s cat, Fi-Fi, rests not just upon a Mexican throw rug but in “the middle of the middle orange square.” All the while, the precision with which Flick sets the scene grounds the reader so that she might better grasp the elusive, just as the shedding of Jolene’s rain slicker makes way for the experience of remorse for her infidelities as well as those of her father and the rain pattering against the gutters enables one to hear the “long stark notes” of his viola “echoing down the hallway of her childhood home.”
One of my most beloved pieces, entitled “Get Up,” proves the outlier of the collection for its straight-forward narrative quality. The recounting of Sally’s first yoga class in Detroit, complete with hard-rocking electric jams wailing from a boom box where one would anticipate the sensuously spiritual strains of “flutes or trickling water or bird noises,” followed by an after-class get-together at a local bar during which Sam, the instructor, alternates his indulgences between a Pabst Blue Ribbon and a Marlboro, Flick crafts a wickedly quirky tale that is more than just the slightest bit surreal. Perhaps it’s because I’ve practiced more than my share of yoga in Madison, the city within which Sally learned the importance of “hydration and harmony,” or the unflattering fact that I spent my twenties seeking to cultivate world peace from a sticky mat mere moments after smoking a butt of my own, that my affinity for this piece only grows with each successive read. Or maybe it’s just a damn good story. There’s definitely something inherently, and oh-so satisfyingly, star-colliding about it.
Another favorite, “Adjustment,” takes place over a post-coital breakfast, wherein a pair of brand new lovers apply the lessons they’ve learned from past relationships to their present situation, dooming it all, right from the start. Indeed, this may be the story with which I most identified; yet, I have a sneaking suspicion that my heart is not the only one “too broken to break.”
As for “You Have a Car,” I’m not quite sure why it left me reeling as it did. Perhaps, in writing it in the second person, Flick convinced me of my once stymied momentum, setting me out into a world where a cowboy in Wyoming with strong hands “smells of car grease, rich dark soil, and sex” and a beautiful woman in California with pierced nipples “tastes of fruity bubble gum.” Certainly, as a writer myself, I crave to know all of Flick’s secrets; however, as a reader, I’m content to reside in the world she crafted, within which I have no doubt I somehow belong.
The collection concludes with a piece entitled “What Was Said,” which is sure to speak to those readers such as myself who warmly extend an invitation destined to be rescinded from the moment her seven digits are scribbled upon a crumpled cocktail napkin. Nevertheless, in defense of Haley (the protagonist), myself, and all others like us, I hold fast to my belief that it is within our vulnerability, so ingeniously safeguarded, that the true story resides.
At the core, Whiskey, Etc. addresses the loneliness we’ve all come to embrace within our games of make-believe, memory and just the precise degree of madness, which is just enough to keep us going despite it all. As for that illusive, universal truth I so desperately sought at the outset, apparently it doesn’t exist . . . or maybe it does, if only for a time; yet, within that groundlessness, so eloquently captured within Flick’s short stories, I suddenly feel so very much at home.