Phone Calls from the Dead
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill ($21.95)
by Ann Veronica Simon
Critics taught me something I didn't know," Wendy Brenner recently told an interviewer; "They taught me that I wrote about eccentrics." It does seem obvious that a father who believed his drowned son still breathes into a tape recorder counts as eccentric. Not to mention an upbeat shoplifter who lives illegally in a mini-storage, or a graduate student whose dissertation takes on "the spiritual and social significance of restaurant mascots." But it does not surprise me that Brenner believes she's writing about people like the rest of us in her second collection of short stories, Phone Calls from the Dead. Her characters are moving as well as hilarious precisely because she depicts them with compassion, not condescension.
In ten tales of private passion and public embarrassment, Brenner's grand parade of small-town oddballs gain our allegiance and recognition by mixing strong emotion with witty dialogue. In one story, six squirrels (yes, squirrels) entangled in a plastic shopping bag worry and argue until a melancholy veterinarian cuts them free. In another, a laid off temp worker and a physically abused magician engage in an "ongoing debate" about whether success is still possible after 35. (They disagree, but both have miserable lives.) In all cases, the unlikely identification we start to feel prevents us from differentiating ourselves or making defensive critical judgments. Amused sympathy strips us of the illusion that we can stand at a comfortable distance from these apparent losers or lunatics.
Nearly all Brenner's characters gain our grudging interest and partial respect, even as we laugh at their absurd predicaments. Even those we might at first want to dismiss as shallow or childish have idiosyncratic habits of diction as complex and unmatchable as fingerprints. There's a homeless crack addict who talks "like Ripley's Believe It Or Not, " spouting non-sequiturs such as "You know you can die from eating glitter?" There's also a group of Valley Girls who combine stock phrases such as "are you, like, mental?" with more unique outbursts like "Woo, delighted, delighted." These characters don't speak like each other, so manage not to be interchangeable mouthpieces of Brenner's overarching linguistic virtuosity. We can't dismiss them as a series of identically instructive failures, comfortingly different from us in some genetic sense.
This book also expertly captures the private languages typical of every couple, family, or circle of quarreling officemates. In most stories, readers get to eavesdrop on the sorts of nicknames we all have for our pals and enemies--PA Girl, Shed boy, Post-It, Sonny von Cher--in a way that makes the characters who invent them more familiar than crazy. Nor can we stop absurd newspaper headlines from ringing true, along with TV shows with names like "The Cantankerous Judge," and community education classes titled "Understanding Your Gerbil." It's actually the culture we already live in that Phone Calls from the Dead reveals as eccentric. The scenes Brenner depicts are surreal, twisted, over the top--but not too far off. And a vivid, entertaining read besides.