Pitt on Parker

Reviewed By

The Rumpus assigned “dueling reviews” to the authors of two new short story collections. It didn’t really work out so well.

From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Subject: Review

Dear Jeff,

This is Matthew Pitt—I’m reviewing your new short story collection, The Taste of Penny. While reading, thoughts have surfaced about craft, themes in your process, etc. Might be worth running these observations by you, to see if I’m on the right track. Can I fire away? Best, Matt

P.S.: You live in Canada, right? How were the Winter Olympics?

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From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Re: Review

Hey Matt,

Thanks for reviewing the book. Happy to field questions. Fire when ready. JP

PS: I live nowhere near the Olympics. Canada is a very large country. Common mistake.

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To: [email protected]

Hey Jeff,

So, the first thing that struck me was how language courses through the stories, both as conceptual theme and concrete subject matter. You delve into language’s permutations: how it’s translated, mangled, how much language we broadcast is gestural (still eligible for mangling). Padgett Powell or Lydia Davis fans would really flock to this: sometimes (as in “Owned”), you restrict voice-play to brief experiments. But more often, language truly shapes the story’s course and sets its sail. Like in “False Cognate,” where the American narrator, living abroad in Russia, rubs his hosts wrong when they understand him to be requesting not a haircut but a hooker. One misfired exchange, and he’s persona non grata: “So I was there with a group and by myself at the same time… I live the real Russian life: isolated, wet feet, maligned.”

At other times, function follows form. Here I’m thinking of the story you tell entirely through e-mail exchange, “Two Hours and Fifty-Three Minutes.” The confessions that get revealed, as this man interrogates old girlfriends to figure out if he’s fertile, are odd enough. But the antiseptic method the narrator uses to unearth his past makes him more endearing than he would otherwise be.

Just checked a map: you’re right, Canada is so big!

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To: [email protected]

Hey Jeff,

Figured you’d have responded to my last note by now. Ah, well.

Maybe you figured I was reducing your work to “language stories.” I wasn’t. I mean—back to “False Cognate”—you craft the story so we focus on the narrator’s misinterpreted remark, a ride in a bathroom-less bus, and tales of drinking games fusing with sensory deprivation. This story, as with others, has a deceptively playful surface, so moments of brutality uppercut expectations. The story—which, due to recent events involving “black widow” Chechen suicide bombers, has become regrettably timely—made me think of violence’s arbitrary nature in the same way I had reading Joseph Heller. You get great mileage out of the machinery of farce, but also use it as stylistic sleight-of-hand, a wily way to slip dread and catastrophe through the back door. Is that analysis more or less accurate?

Jeff Parker

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To: [email protected]

I’d say more to the less side.

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To: [email protected]

Really? See, I wouldn’t so quickly dismiss this…

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To: [email protected]

Hey Matt. I think you win the dueling reviews. Do you know the story of Pushkin and how he was diddling everyone’s wives but when someone decided to diddle his wife he challenged the guy to a duel and then, the story goes, when he left the house for the duel he forgot something and returned to get it but neglected this Russian superstition about never returning to the house to get something you forgot unless you absolutely have to, in which case make sure to look at yourself in the mirror before leaving again? Well, Pushkin returned and didn’t look at himself in the mirror and so he was shot and died. Do you know that story? That’s like me in this dueling review thing Altschul signed us up for. Not that I’m comparing myself to Pushkin in any sense other than I figuratively forgot something in my house and returned to get it without looking at myself in the mirror in this dueling review. And by the way, how’s that elk burger?

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To: [email protected]

How’d you know I was eating an elk burger while working on this review? Anyway, the burger is tasty; richer than a normal patty. Just like your stories are richer for their stew of farce and pity. Think of “Our Cause,” where the narrator Scoma loses consciousness, and his tongue tip, after finding his girlfriend in flagrante dilecto (speaking of diddling) with another guy. Your account of the sensation’s aftermath is strong: “When I come to, there’s a tarantula in my mouth.” Mute and exiled, carrying his ounce of flesh in an ice-filled Ziploc bag, Scoma pitches a tent in a Wyoming farm, befriends a man who pushes anonymous pills on him, “chasing down my real problem,” and who claims to speak proficiently in prairie dog. It isn’t too long before said prairie dogs appear before Scoma to offer soothing words and soothsaying, in English. The amassing absurdities are funny on their own—but I admire how you never sacrifice character in service of humor!

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To: [email protected]

Say it however you see it, mate.

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To: [email protected]

Tersely put. Like author, like creation, huh? Maybe you’re being modest about the work’s aims and accomplishments (you do live in Canada now). Or is it just I’ve drawn a bead on your artistic process in a way you hadn’t considered?

Let’s try a different tack. The Taste of Penny has two satisfying stories centering on fathers and sons. In “The Briefcase of the Pregnant Spylady,” Hryushka stows away in suitcases and performs Houdini-like tricks to save money for his father, who runs a general store for other Russian immigrants. While stowed in luggage compartments, Hryushka steals items for his father. What makes the piece so moving is how you quietly propose that, despite the game’s demeaning, demanding, and dangerous nature, it still may not be one that Hryushka wants to see come to an end.

In “The Boy and the Colgante,” a young man flees from the U.S. to Canada during wartime. Though the father objects to his son’s conscientious objecting, he serves as an accessory to the desertion. They move from the Gulf Coast’s “Redneck Riviera” to a Quebec equivalent. To their new neighbors’ consternation, and in defiance of local law, the contentious father proceeds to run the stars and stripes up a massive flagpole he purchases. Later, the son offers detente, hanging a CD from the rear-view mirror of his father’s vehicle. Its front side is labeled with an image of the American flag the father was forced to take down. The music itself features the U.S. national anthem, played on flamenco guitars. “It’s only a decoration,” the son explains, “if you put it facing out. If it faces you, then it’s just for you.” In these stories, you seem to suggest that even wide divides in politics and perception and communication can be bridged—but almost never by using the usual materials. Sound familiar?

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To: [email protected]

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A native of St. Louis, Matthew Pitt’s first story collection, ATTENTION PLEASE NOW, won the Autumn House Prize, and was later a winner of Late Night Library’s Debut-litzer Prize and finalist for the Texas Writers League Book Award. Pitt’s fiction has received numerous honors and awards, and is forthcoming or has appeared in Oxford American, BOMB, Conjunctions, Epoch, Cincinnati Review, BEST NEW AMERICAN VOICES, and elsewhere. More from this author →