Some of Her Friends That Year
New and Selected Stories
Coffee House Press ($16.95)
by Chris Semansky
A master of indirection and irony, attitude and empathy, poet and fiction writer Maxine Chernoff charts the inscrutable and the mundane in Some of Her Friends That Year: New and Selected Stories. Thick with allusions to popular culture, these stories attempt to illustrate what happens when characters, mostly women, love too much.
The title story-one of fifteen new pieces added to selections from her two previous collections, Bop and Signs of Devotion-describes the unnamed main character by chronicling what happens to her friends over the course of one year in a list of thirteen short, numbered sections: one writes a bestseller, another has her first baby at forty-nine, another one's cancer returns, and so on-the stuff of life. As in many of the stories in the collection, meaning doesn't develop so much as accrue, the sheer weight of events greasing the way for the main character's epiphany. In the last section, the narrator provides it, summing up this character's attitude towards others: "she knew how everyone felt, that their lives were somehow hers... that she wasn't happy as long as someone else was suffering."
There's plenty of suffering in these stories, from jilted wives to disillusioned Russian immigrants to emotionally exhausted middle-aged couples seeking to renew their love. Many of the stories point toward a moral. In "Jealousy," for example, a couple whose marriage becomes strained after they put their money in stocks meets a quadriplegic whose aide has abandoned her. Cuddling that night with her husband, the wife muses, "Maybe helplessness is all we need for a life we can bear. Maybe all we have to do is ask to share it." As much about redemption as suffering, Chernoff's stories sometimes skirt perilously close to preachiness, her martyr-like narrators hammering home the same point again and again about the redemptive capacity of love. The short sketch "Nobel Prize for Shoes" charts the emotional life of a woman who contemplates the idea of happiness while enduring her husband's philandering ways and petty demands. "Her dreams are always about responsibilities to others," readers are told, a description that applies to many of the female narrators here.
The well-pocked road of middle age forms the backdrop for almost every story: disappointment and betrayal, the daily compromises of marriage, diminishing expectations, and always relentless nostalgia weaving its way through all interactions. In "Jeopardy," 40-year-old Maggie calls her octogenarian mother to ask if she remembers playing with Saul Bellow when she was a child, having just learned Bellow grew up on the same street as her family. The mother doesn't, but concocts a story about comforting the young Bellow after his mother had died. Full of wit and warmth, the exchange between mother and daughter illustrates how memory and desire help shape the complexities of trans-generational love, and of storytelling itself.
One startling offering, "We Kill What We Love," presents a familiar story in a new vein. Like television's popular cop drama, Law and Order, Chernoff takes a story from the headlines and adapts it to her needs. In a series of short, compressed sections that resemble a journalist's notes and include titles such as "Definitions" and "Actions," Chernoff analyzes the relationship between O. J. Simpson and Nicole Brown Simpson from its inception to its tragic end. In story after story, Chernoff ferrets meaning from popular culture, showing how individuals are stamped with history, destroyed and saved by love.
Although many of her themes and "plots"-some of her stories are little more than character sketches-are conventional, Chernoff lards her writing with details of twentieth-century American life, especially television shows and celebrities. References to John Belushi, David Letterman, Jeopardy, Saturday Night Live, and Harry Reasoner are so numerous as to constitute another character, a presence reminding readers not only of the fictive nature of her own stories, but of the fictive nature of the world from which they derive. Regardless of the familiarity of many of the situations and themes, Chernoff's details and her unerring sense of the (mis)directions of the human heart make hers a compelling voice.