A flawed ‘primer’ on lives of common Americans
‘The trouble with the common people,’’ as the saying used to go in less correct times, “is that they are so common.’’ Jean Thompson’s latest collection of short stories, “Do Not Deny Me,’’ written in a self-consciously egalitarian spirit, is patently about “common people.’’ The stories feature middle managers, couples on the cusp of economic and emotional collapse, poor and dysfunctional families distorted by child abuse, divorced drinkers looking for love on the Web, and a bereaved young woman who thinks she might be psychic. In short, real life, the book seems to shout, the stuff of American literature - and in case we can’t figure it out on our own, the back-of-the-book chatter instructs us: The collection is a “fictional primer on how Americans live day to day.’’
But Thompson’s everyday Americans are not only “common’’ in Webster’s sense of “characterized by a lack of privilege or social status,’’ but also, as the old joke suggests, in the other sense of “lacking refinement, coarse.’’ The author bestows on her characters the gift of her curiosity and sympathy, but denies them her identification and empathy. The result is that her people sound almost like real people - but not quite.
Thompson strives mightily to enter the consciousness of stroke victims, prisoners, crass ladies men, and working women who frequent the mall. In some ways, she succeeds - she replicates with a wavering accuracy the pop-psychological jargon, fear of appearing racist, TV-show wisdom, and sexual bitterness pervasive in our society. But more often than the well-chosen phrase comes the ungainly, sometimes-anachronistic approximation.
Often the colloquial language of a character gets confused with the literary locution of the author: “I was eating bad and sleeping worse by then, and time had a bleary, jerky quality.’’
Thompson indulges in other prosaic infelicities. In her story “Smash,’’ she describes commuting: “. . . you zip along inside your enclosed space with your coffee and your radio and the rest of your personal comforts, and the world outside is like wallpaper, almost, in a room where you have to sit for a time.’’ Here, as in many other instances, Thompson substitutes ingenuity for accuracy of experience. “The summer’s heat dragged on into September and then October. Leaves of trees didn’t fall but hung on, coated with dust, like dropping tongues.’’
Often, even when a description is accurate and witty, the reader can feel the author straining: “Of course her friends tried to comfort her, but she could tell there were statutory limits in place for a short-term lover, and their sympathy was weighed out accordingly.’’
Thompson’s literary failings point to a greater deficiency. The author knocks at the doors of her characters’ lives and attempts entry, but rarely gets past the cluttered foyer of their sourness, whiny philosophizing, and psychobabble. Her subjects lack not only distinctiveness, but distinction - in other words, they are common. But in fact, everyday Americans are not common. When Raymond Carver or Tobias Wolff or Alice Munro penetrate the souls of their subjects, what is revealed is the singularity, the playfulness, the evil, the canniness, the miraculous goodness - the uncommonness - of “regular’’ human beings. Trudging through one dreary tale after another in “Do Not Deny Me,’’ the reader becomes acquainted not with human beings but only their pale shadows.
Alec Solomita is a writer living in Somerville.