Parker on Pitt

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Part II in The Rumpus’s ill-conceived “battle of the book reviews.”

When a misguided Rumpus editor first suggested the idea of dueling reviews between myself and Matthew Pitt, I thought it meant we would crucify each other’s new story collections. While I admit that might have been fun, it would have been a real bitch. As it is, reviewing Pitt’s story collection has been difficult enough. Taking the stories piecemeal, it’s easy enough to imagine the kind of writer Pitt is and what he’s up to, but together it’s kind of like being a one-year-old child presented with a Baby’s First Blocks early-development toy. One of the stories is the star-shaped block and fits only through the star-shaped hole, another the square through the square-shaped hole, etc. Surely there is a more sophisticated analogy to discuss Pitt’s excellent work, but I’m sticking with this one. That shit blows your mind when you’re one year old.

On the first page of the first story in Attention Please Now, “Golden Retrievers,” the owner of Peticular Bliss, a kennel for dogs of the stars, feeds all sixty of her charges their designated vegetarian, low-cal food with special requests like capers and lemon twists out of their respective Fiesta-style ceramic bowls, then closes up for the night. The AC conks out while she’s gone—during a heat wave in August—and by the time she returns in the morning the dogs are all dead. We are told on this first page that this is “the meltdown of Susie Light’s Hollywood career,” but I barely even noticed this line until later, after the story unfolds as a kind of psychological portrait of Susie, who begins seeing phantom dogs everywhere. Eventually, we burrow deep enough into her psychology to find out that the kennel was Susie’s way of pursuing her dream of becoming a star herself: “Someday she’d groom the right terrier, nurse an ill greyhound back to health, which would lead to a producer or casting agent re-sculpting Susie’s life into the mold of instant fame. They would discover her.”

Full disclosure: I met Matthew Pitt at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference a few years ago. We didn’t really talk so much. I had a few beers with him and got the sense that he was a really nice guy. After reading his short story collection I felt like I had to meet him again, to get a hold on what the book was trying to do. We both happened to be at the AWP conference last month, so we met for lunch. Here is what I learned:

Matthew Pitt carries around a plastic coffee mug with photos of his daughter laminated to it.

Once, Matthew Pitt played the roles of both Stanley Kowalski and the virgin newspaper donation collector in two separate but simultaneous productions of A Streetcar Named Desire. Later he won second place in the Stella-Off, the Stella Shouting Contest at the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival.

He won a fellowship through a peace conference to be an observer at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, where he was asked for input on legal documents detailing atrocities committed by Slobodan Milosevic. He told me over a beer and an elk burger that he felt conflicted about that role. The documentation was important, he told me, but here he was moving commas around in sentences about overflowing mass graves. The grammar, the words, the punctuation—it all seemed so insignificant to him compared to the content.

In the story “Answers to Frequently Asked Questions,” Q&A’s occasionally interrupt the story. It opens with a Q&A, but the answer comes first. Benny, who takes photos of prospective development zones for Manifest Destiny, a real estate company, returns home from a work trip to find the home disheveled and his wife gone. He convinces himself of the worst, that she left him, but soon she calls and tells him that a family member died and he should join her in Tucson. He immediately boards a flight. The disconnectedness of their relationship and the affair he’s been having occupy his mind. As he leaves the plane for a layover an object falls out of the overhead bin and hits him in the head. Impossibly, it seems to be the same “garish clay duck with a bright-green bill and a tuft of yellow fuzz on the top like a mound of grated cheese” that Mexican customs seized from them as they returned from their honeymoon. A Q&A appears:

Q: Could you just leave Kate by attrition? Take a few bags here and a few there, nothing too visible until the last trip, leaving only furniture and a page-long letter?

A: No. If he’s going to do it he needs to do it now, do it quickly, in just one shot.”

The wife, suspecting that all is not right with her husband’s delay, checks around on the Manifest Destiny website and finds that one of the properties listed there is their own apartment. She confronts him on the phone about this and he confesses that he posted it because he needed a twenty-four-hour connection to her. “I needed souvenirs,” he says. In place of her he needed something, and now, in her moment of need, he is making what he believes to be a necessary break.

A: Yes it is possible. Very possible.

Q: While acknowledging that Attention Please Now is a fitting title for this book—stories about characters perking up, being perked up, or perking up others from incontrovertible states of inattention—is it possible that the most pugnacious stories here are those that ride the tension between feeling and doing, an anxiety not unlike Pitt’s anxiety about editing commas in sentences describing atrocity?

Hey Jeff: Matt here, eavesdropping on your review. I remember that Sewanee conference, too. I enjoyed your reading (from Ovenman). Figured it was only a matter of time before we had our full, Parker-Pitt powwow. Then I looked up and ten days were gone. Profound loss, indeed. Those pictures you mentioned of my daughter, on my travel coffee mug—I can’t always reconcile the child she is with the baby she was, wrestling with one of those Fisher-Price toys. Shrieking with glee as she figured what went where. Seems like what we do as writers—attempt to structure and express in imagination all that we find sublime and haunting in life. And because we can’t tell those things over an elk burger and a beer to everyone we’d like to, we write our stories and turn them over, hoping they connect to whoever winds up voyaging through them.

I’ve read “Au Lieu des Fleurs,” another story in Attention Please Now, about five times, and, while it’s mesmerizing, I’m pretty sure that I’m still not fully getting it. The main character is a bureaucrat who’s lost his wife in a car accident. That same day he’d had budget reports to finish and he’d finished them. He’d never even greeted her parents after her death. He goes to a café where a shipment of food has been waylaid and so old rancid fish soup is served. He eats enough to give him a stomach ache and leaves. He tortures himself over his own actions, imagining himself kissing the walls in his dead wife’s parents’ apartment as some kind of restitution. Then he sees a place across the street advertising specials and he goes in but soon finds out that it is not a café but a funeral parlor having a service for public prankster and anarchist Mouna Aguigui, who himself purportedly found his calling to pranksterhood late in life, while working in a café across the street from a funeral parlor where he “saw my life floating away in bowls of fish soup.” He steals a handkerchief from the body embroidered with the phrase “In Place of Flowers Do Something.” The spectacle and the subsequent acts would seem to be a final (or perhaps yet another) prank on Aguigui’s part, but I think that’s irrelevant. These stories obviously are not in themselves acts, I would insist, but at their best they show us ourselves flailing in the grey area between thought and action with spellbinding results. Even if you can’t fit the shape of one story in the slot designed for another, the shit blows my mind.

Q: Isn’t this business with the Fisher-Price’s Baby’s First Blocks a bit much?

A: Yes. Yes, I’m afraid that it is.

Q: Does that mean Matthew Pitt won the duel?

A: He has. He has.

Jeff Parker is the author of the novel Ovenman, published in 2007 by Tin House Books. His collection of short stories, The Taste of Penny, has just been published by Dzanc Books. More from this author →