Winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, Amina Gautier’s At-Risk tells the stories of teenagers who, for many reasons, are at risk.
The children in Amina Gautier’s slim volume of stories, At-Risk, live in peril. One is a mother at sixteen, another witnesses the shooting deaths of two friends—one of whom is himself the central figure of the collection’s final story. His attention divided between a Billie Holiday record playing in his apartment and the fireworks set off by a friend outside—torn between fealty to his concerned family and longing for his dangerous, exciting friend—this last character seems a study in both innocence and futility.
Gautier’s characters live in more than physical danger, however. They are almost always the average children of their families. “I was not gifted,” confides the narrator of “Some Other Kind of Happiness.” “In my twelve and a half years I had shown no extraordinary talent . . . I didn’t have Tony’s smarts or his prospects. I had nowhere to go.” In other stories, a young mother is “only the middle child and not even the smart one”; a prep school student who teaches her white classmates to dance is “a [not] very good dancer” whose limited skills still make her, “after all these years, good for something”; the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant faces her mother’s desire for her “to distinguish myself from the others in my class, to stand out.” Yet another girl, writing a letter in detention to the child she bullies, thinks, “If it were not for the girl’s attentive violence, Colleen would be a nobody. She’d go unnoticed and uncalled on by Mrs. Greenberg, lost in a sea of indistinguishable black kids in a public elementary school with an overcrowding problem.” What she doesn’t quite note is that she, too, benefits from the violence; her identity as a bully is just as crucial as Colleen’s as victim.
The brilliant children, the ones destined to escape their circumstances, do exist in Gautier’s pages, but they’re always older brothers, sisters, cousins. One disappears to a prep school in Connecticut for nine months of the year and comes back disdainful of his family. Another receives an achievement award at a ceremony where his family embarrasses him. Yet another loads up on classes at CUNY as she moves toward her dream of being an accountant. Gautier’s concern, however, is with humanizing and differentiating the ones who will most likely be left behind. Her final story arrives as if to chide you for believing in any other outcome: here’s a child as innocent and sensitive as the others Gautier presents, but we already know that a violent death awaits him in only a few short months, weeks, or even days.
For the most part Gautier succeeds admirably in making each child distinct. Her stories are affecting, her children tough, sensible, and warm. And yet there’s a certain disjointedness to the way Gautier accomplishes this. We’re told time and again that her characters are average, and their speech often reflects this—they’re angry, petty, confused. But then we access the narrator’s thoughts, and it seems as though they’ve been hijacked by another voice, elegant and elegiac. It’s this voice that communicates to you the characters’ sensitivity, but it’s also this voice that most forcibly challenges Gautier’s task. When the inner lives of characters are so rich and well articulated, how are we to believe that these are the kids “at-risk,” the ones who didn’t learn how to fight their way out?
The tone is, of course, most wistful and most beautifully meditative in stories told in the first-person past tense. But this too is a complicated choice: it removes the risk. We know these children made it somewhere. We know they survived to reflect. In some cases, we even know these average children went on to succeed as well as the more talented ones:
“On college campuses, I would see sorority women like the ones who tried to mentor me. I would go to their step shows and social programs, watching them hungrily . . . And I would think of how I had missed my chance to know their secret ways, how I had closed myself out.”
It’s possible to say that Gautier’s stories demonstrate how difficult it is to really capture the average voice. The temptation of writing with beauty and wit seems unavoidable, even when it works against an author’s purpose. But it’s also possible that the tension between her characters’ exteriority and interiority guides us and continues to tell the story. It’s impossible not to note, for example, that the final story is told in the third-person: a child so soon to die has little time for reflection. Almost universally, in fact, the characters most perilously positioned—the young mother, the friend of the children killed, a girl who picks up an older man out of boredom and some desire—are the ones whose stories are told third-person. The ones whose problems seem slightly more existential and certainly less harrowing, like the boy who fails to defend his bullied brother or the girl who avoids an afternoon tea, tell their stories in the first-person. At-Risk is somewhat misleadingly titled: while risk suggests a degree of uncertainty, these outcomes have already been decided.