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March 20, 2014

“Friendly Fire”

by Anne Paddock

..honey, this is life. You learn to live with guilt. You do the best you can. Believe me, you don’t get away with anything in this life. You’re going to pay the price, so you make sure you get your money’s worth.

Friendly Fire, a collection of 11 short stories written by Kathryn Chetkovich was awarded the John Simmons Short Fiction Award from the University of Iowa. Although 16 years have passed since the book was published, this treasury of short stories is as relevant today as when they were first read in 1998. Forthright but with a subtle message and often open-ended, these stories don’t have twists or imply completion primarily because the stories deal with tough issues: envy, irony, dishonesty, loyalty, teenage angst, aging, friendship, marriage, love, lust, and responsibility – highly charged emotions that inspire loose ends and don’t take well to predictability.

Friendly FireSomeone once told me that a good book is one that the reader thinks about long after a story has been read. The short stories in Friendly Fire inspire thought – a lot of thought – and often led me to reread a story thinking that I may have missed an important detail. But, more often than not, the story I read the second time was the story I read the first time which made me realize I was looking for something that wasn’t there:  a twist or a piece of information that implies completion and permission to move on. Personal struggles and emotional entanglement rarely make for fairy tale endings.

One of my favorite stories in the collection is Appetites: a story about a young, rather plain woman named Amanda who moves in with Faith, an exquisite looking red-head whose “real vocation seemed to be reminding others what beauty God hath wrought.” and Carla, a woman described on a driver’s license as “brown, brown, corrective lenses” and a runner whose shelf on the refrigerator was “dominated by vegetables in plastic bags and fat-free salad dressing.” Life with Faith has its upside: apartment repairs are done promptly, and a downside: Amanda becomes all too aware of the power of beauty in this world – something she didn’t realize until it becomes painfully apparent that she doesn’t possess that power.

Aging seems to affect all of us in some way whether it’s the effects on ourselves, friends, or family. In Dreaming Before Sleep and The World With My Mother Still In It, the reader learns of the struggles of the old (“If you don’t want to forget things, you’ve just got to remember them.”) and the young when the adult daughter of an elderly couple ponders her propensity to fall in love with handsome preoccupied men while watching her parents and in particular, her mother “slip off one edge of the world.”

Love and loyalty and all that marriage entails are the themes in Damages, The Future Tense, All These Gifts, and My Real Life while lust and “unusual” relationships are explored in Magic Acts and As Needed. In each of these stories, the characters are faced with big questions and not readily apparent answers.

Most readers don’t have to dig too deep to recall the painful years of adolescence when parents would behave awfully and cause immense embarrassment to a teen who was only able to think of herself and how she was perceived. In Driving Home, 12-year old Franny is being driven home from school by her mom, who has not adjusted well to life in Connecticut, a move made six months prior. An artful and painful story of a pre-teen trying to understand why her mother is always on the defense, and not the offense.

In the short story, Friendly Fire, the reader is introduced to six women who meet once a month for dinner at each other’s houses. Different as night and day, the women find common ground as they contemplate violence against women and their possible victimization while being told to remember that If you need help, don’t yell rape. No one will come. Yell Fire.

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