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February 22, 2014

“Safe As Houses”

by Anne Paddock

Safe As Houses is a collection of short stories written by Marie-Helene Bertino and winner of The Iowa Short Fiction Award (2012). The title of the book – Safe As Houses – signifies what most of us believe a home should be: a haven from the outside world where families celebrate holidays and display refrigerator art and framed photographs, but Bertino shows the reader that home can also be a house that is wiped away in an instant, a place we flee from, or a prison in which we lock the world out. Despite the general belief that people are safe in their homes, the truth can be entirely different because what makes a house a home is its inhabitants, not the brick and mortar – and people can be dangerous.

Unknown-30In the title story, Safe as Houses, an English professor loses his wife in a tragic accident and finds other people’s happiness an affront to his sensibilities. Turning to cat burglary, the professor sets out to make other people as miserable as he is until a 4-legged Pomeranian named Jake makes him reconsider his life path.

Thanksgiving is one of America’s biggest family holidays that some people just dread (as in the Silver family in May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes or Thanksgiving at the Willis home in the academy award-winning movie, Scent of a Woman) . Returning to the family dining room table can be fraught with friction although mom often pretends that everyone loves each other and is so excited to be together again.

In North Of, a 21-year old New Yorker returns to Memphis to spend Thanksgiving  with her family but decides to surprise them by bringing Bob Dylan along. A funny but painful story about a weak mother who can’t stop saying “Isn’t it wonderful? The whole family around the table,” an angry and abusive older brother who can’t seem to call his sister anything but “punk”, and the little sister who still yearns for her brother’s approval.

When a young woman’s home is burnt down in Free Ham, she and her mother move in with an eccentric older aunt, although Sam regularly visits her abusive father, a man obsessed with dogs and verbally abusing his daughter. Sam is trying to cope with him and live with people who are more concerned with shopping for bargains, entering contests (hence the title of the story), and reading about dogs, than engaging in life.

In Sometimes You Break Their Hearts, Sometimes They Break Yours, an alien from another planet in the guise of a young woman is sent to Earth to observe human behavior and fax the information back to her superiors. A satirical story along the lines of a George Saunders piece, this short story is hilarious because it makes us look at how ridiculous we are at times:

Human beings…did not think their lives were challenging enough so they invented roller coasters. A roller coaster is a series of problems on a steel track. Upon encountering real problems, human beings compare their lives to riding a roller coaster, even though they invented roller coasters to have fun things to do on their day off.

If you’ve ever dated someone for years and then broken up, then The Idea of Marcel will make you roar with laughter. Creative and hilariously funny, The Idea of Marcel is about a couple – Emily and Marcel who dated for four years and broke up. In the story, Emily is having dinner with The Idea of Marcel (what she wants him to be) while Marcel is having dinner with His Ideal Emily – the Emily he wished she was – athletic, flirtatious, sexy, and attentive – a woman who listens with rapt attention to every word he says. The Idea of Marcel is taller, leaves his hip saddled cell phone at home, allows Emily to order from the menu first, and admits he has been a careless and impatient boyfriend. As the evening progresses, both Emily and Marcel encounter some unexpected obstacles in coming to terms with who they are and who they want the other to be.

Elaine Hemphill is alone in her home distraught over family issues when a salesman knocks on the door in This Is Your Will To Live. Foster Grass (which made me think of “Foster Grants” and seeing the world with a new clarity) has something he wants to sell and Emily has to decide whether she wants to buy it or not.

In Great, Wondrous, 30-something Vanessa is married to Charles and living in a town called Vanilla whose two main attractions are Vanilla Mall and Vanilla University. As Vanessa says “Vanilla wasn’t dull; it was mind-shattering pedestrian” and yet, she lives there which makes the reader wonder why. It’s been 13 years since Vanessa has seen her three college pals: Corina, Sam and Ian, all of whom attended Vanilla University together. A hilarious confessional story in which Vanessa recounts her sophomore and junior years in which she and her friends took on the system. A truly great and wondrous story that will make you laugh out loud.

Ruby is heartbroken in Take Me Home Sisters of St. Joseph. Clive, a lawyer turned rodeo clown at the local Lone Star Steakhouse has broken up with her which impacts every part of her life. When she is asked at work to come up with a new line for TRIX cereal to replace “Silly Rabbit, Trix are for kids,” she comes up with “Stupid fucking rabbit, not everything’s about you” which ends her career in advertising. In desperation, she decides to take a job as a groundskeeper and general helper at the St. Teresa of Avila’s convent where 15 sisters of St. Joseph live. A non-believer among believers, Ruby teaches the sisters a few things while the sisters also show Ruby an alternative to anger. A rollicking and hysterically funny story that will leave the reader grinning from ear to ear.

Bertino writes with great humor and I often thought her writing style and message was of a less horrific or milder version of George Saunders. I purchased Safe As Houses because the book won the Iowa Short Fiction Award and briefly considered not finishing the book after I read the first story – Free Ham – because I found the father character so disturbing and yet, I read on and realized the best of Bertino’s work was further afield.  North Of, The Idea of Marcel, Great Wondrous, and Carry Me Home Sisters of Saint Joseph are outstanding short stories that will make you laugh, cheer, and laugh some more.

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