Debutantes in Distress

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Lori Baker’s new short story collection, Crash and Tell, is led by a cast of women whose rich creative minds derail their own lives.

Many of the female characters in Crash and Tell, Lori Baker’s new collection of stories, yearn for experiences and lives they’ve envisioned for themselves but cannot possibly have. Instead action often occurs in the creative minds of these characters: a photographer, an illusionist, a library assistant, a middle-aged seaside tourist, a car-accident-victim pushover, a fictionalized Jane Goodall, and others. Dreams and memories complement plot. Conjecture runs parallel with narration. A pervasive aloofness creates a buffer between them and their sterile existence, as well as an emotional distance from the reader.

Yet in these mostly sardonic tales, Baker’s characters are reasonably (if ironically) self-aware. The stories are also, in general, wickedly amusing and Baker’s writing is both precise and quirky. Word choices often surprise but they also work in context. These are misfit stories after all and esoteric terms here and there rightly emphasize the absurdities facing her oddball protagonists. Every woman here is lost or searching or patiently waiting for life to come to her—rarely do they get what they want, if they even know what they want. They’re bourgeois pawns of their own (or their mothers’) making—with one character even happily recycling sad clichés.

“The Coming of Age of Jane” is one of the stronger pieces in the collection. In it, Baker fictionalizes Jane Goodall and re-imagines her as a debutante from Chevy Chase, Maryland who cannot escape her demanding, often inappropriate mother. In fact, Jane’s mother has literally followed Jane to her jungle encampment, and she and Jane openly battle for the attention and affections of Harry Morrison—an older fellow scientist—in a very primitive way.

Observing ape behavior as a statement on its evolved human version might be too obvious a ploy—or it might quickly devolve into schlock—for a lesser writer, but Baker diffuses this problem by properly structuring the story, then acknowledging its artifice. She also makes the story very funny; the reader is in on the joke.

He’s “slyly Jesuitical in manner, with a sort of dip-and-tarry gait that suggests lameness, although his appearance is otherwise robust.” This quote comes from one of Jane’s journal entries, which comprise the story and allow for Jane’s clinical human-ape observations (replete with drawings of the chimps). In this entry, she’s describing not Dr. Morrison but another male primate she’s been closely watching—an ape named “Marty.” Very soon Jane herself starts to resemble not the real Jane Goodall but perhaps Lady Greystoke, or Jane of Tarzan fame—a damsel in distress—and then ultimately “Lulu,” one of Jane’s female chimp subjects.

Modified modern-day damsels abound in this collection: Jane; Virginia in “Crash and Tell”; Beryl in “At Sea”; Natalie in “Ghost Story”; Maria in “Experimental Maria.” These women are caught in a whirlpool of Crock-Pots, ne’er-do-wells, and pre-feminist expectations. Virginia, for one, is placed in peril’s way by the devilish Lenny, who drives a “brand-new bright red Lincoln Continental…around town like a fifty-thousand-dollar penis.” He purposely “pokes” Virginia’s car in order to get her “vitals”; he leaves her with the mistaken impression that they’d been involved in a car accident. Later Lenny asks Virginia to Wonderland, and this will be the first date she’s been on in years. It’s a “big deal” and something to mention at her next group-therapy session.

What follows might have otherwise been the grim tale of sad-sack Virginia but this story—like others in the collection—is buoyed by Baker’s humorous treatment and her sharply cynical viewpoint. It is immediately apparent that Lenny is a low-level criminal type—with his odd manner and speech, his “thoroughbred ferrets,” and his gambling problems and shady dealings. Well, this is obvious to the reader if not to Virginia, who is handicapped by low self-esteem, zero confidence, a plainly advertised desperation, and hyper-hypersensitivity. She’s a damsel, but there is no hero to save her from the villain. In net effect, the villain and the hero here are the same, and only Virginia is (ironically) unaware of this. Lenny fails to show up on time for their first date. Virginia imagines that he’s been killed in a car accident. When he does arrive later that night, Virginia is unprepared and she scolds herself. This is what she deserves for “imagining wreckage.” In the end though, what she’s undone by is a lack of imagination as well as a desire to quell her own loneliness.

“Still Life” is the energetic and ethereal opening story to Crash and Tell. Along with “The Coming of Age of Jane” and the title work, it forms the first and stronger half of this six-story collection. “Still Life” centers on an eccentric extended family of photographers and their cousin Louise, an illusionist whose performances enchant, befuddle and infuriate this tight-knit clan. One of Louise’s greatest performances leads to an irrevocable estrangement. Afterward the narrator retreats to a humdrum life as staff photographer for the local newspaper. Several years later, she encounters Louise by chance, but her cousin quickly disappears again. The narrator concludes that “Louise herself is lost among the words, which are themselves nothing more than representations, insubstantial as a scattering of moths. And so I imagine for her, a life of creative irresponsibility far removed from my own more prosaic but irreproachably real world of parades, supermarket openings, and portraits of the mayor.”

Kevin Nolan writes essays and fiction. More from this author →