The characters in this debut collection of short stories are soaked, tossed, drowned, and washed away by love.
Feel free to take the title of Drenched literally, since the universe of Marisa Matarazzo’s first book is soaked through, awash in torrential love and water. In this series of intertwined stories, characters of several generations desperately love, mutilate, and abandon each other, suspended in no specific time or place but always surrounded by (and sometimes filled with) water. Characters often take to the sea, while other times the sea comes to them, as with two sexually adventurous, shipbuilding teens swept away by a flood in the squishy and shimmering “Hangdangling.”
Matarazzo seems to be writing under the influence of Aimee Bender, who generously blurbs this debut collection. Not a copycat, but certainly an acolyte, Matarazzo’s characters inhabit a universe that’s a bit distorted, a bit refracted. While the terrain is sometimes unfamiliar, the emotions are crystal clear and often tactile. An unnamed first-person narrator in “Henchmen,” on a vengeful mission to murder the fictional CEO of Target who has adulterated the product she invented, bears physical scars on her chest after being separated from her sweetheart. Even as members of the CEO’s security team pursue and seduce her, she searches their bodies to see if they share her scars—and, by implication, her pain.
The scarred assassin, a full-grown adult whom we follow through the book, is actually an outlier; most of the characters in Drenched are just lonely kids, forced to wrestle too early with the twin confusions of sex and death. But their vibrant, adult vocabularies can add insight and pathos. Much of the time, the significant action happens inside their heads—aside from the magical red Jell-O and underwater Russian escape pod, that is. Sailor, one of the seafaring teens from “Hangdangling,” manifests typical adolescent sensibility alongside unusual wisdom:
And when he asks what’d you do today? She can say nothing, same-old-same. When in truth, ripe all over her skin and dancing wildly through her thoughts and underwear, is the fact that she’s just had delicious jellyfish sex with the person who is the breath-filching favorite of her life.
Lines like those titillate the reader, as though we’re reading the super-secret diary of an incredibly perceptive high school student. No gossip girls here—this is much juicier.
Even when they’re soaked in the mundane details of suburban life, there’s nothing tidy about the stories in Drenched. Love is messy as the blood from an amputation, or a murder, and even more so the complicated emotions that attend all this passion and loss. Some of those emotions are just plain confounding, like the practice of Ashlyn Aschenberger in “Fisty Pinions,” which involves taping heavy glass ashtrays to her breasts and brazenly chain-smoking into them, a physical manifestation of grief upon the death of her parents. Others are sympathetic, like the scabbed mouth of a handicapped girl who just wants to kiss her boyfriend’s mouth, nothing more. Too bad his scalding teeth burn her lips on contact.
Such is the fate of two young people in “Hotmouths” who try to be together despite emotional baggage, a significant age difference, and disapproving elders. If the plot sounds well-worn, think again: The girl has no hands and the man has teeth made of rose quartz that sizzle as his blood rises, to both darkly comic and sweetly sentimental effect. Matarazzo has an endearing, palpable affection for these imperfect bodies, one she skillfully transfers to the reader by osmosis, capturing the obsessive and myopic nature of young love.
Families, on the other hand, are fractured and sometimes downright cruel, like all the parents in “Freshet” who, desperate after losing their reliable babysitters, affectionately surrender their young children to the ocean. Although this reader was left wondering why the parents didn’t simply organize a babysitting co-op, the parting scene is still heart-wrenching, with children toddling toward the waves while grieving parents flop on the beach like gasping fish:
Shrill children screams and yips are swallowed by ocean rumble as they are sucked into the salty sea and the beach is washed bare. In the darkening light, baby shadows shift in silhouette inside the faces of tall waves, then disappear. The children are coddled out, pocketed by the deep. One, two, three at a time. Until the sky is black, the sand is black, the sea is black.
Some threads run through the stories of Drenched like a current, while others eddy and fizzle out after a few pages. The abandoned babies make another cameo appearance near the end of the book, viewed through a peephole by a character in another story. Fortunately, Matarazzo’s primary current is powerful enough to carry us through to the end; though some of the material could have been whittled away, the chaotic nature of these love affairs fits the rolling, tidal rhythm of the book as a whole. Imagine a tropical vacation that accidentally lands you in the middle of monsoon season, and you’ve got Matarazzo’s fascinating debut.