Playing off of Jerry Seinfeld’s video series, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” The Morning News introduced a new column earlier this month called “Novelists in Restaurants Eating Food.” Roxane Gay offered up the first sampling, and this Wednesday, Jami Attenburg contributed the second, “Café de la Esquina.” Should there be doubts as to the genre of the review/not review, the editors left a hashtag-fiction indicator at the bottom for us.
The story takes place at a taqueria in Brooklyn and portrays an uncertain yet ongoing relationship. Here, the first line: “I’m eating dinner with the man that I slept with two years ago, last year, and maybe this year, too.” Even if our narrator didn’t later allude to Grace Paley (she does), it’s the kind of first line—and the kind of relationship and geographical territory—that calls Paley to mind. There’s a scope and perspective, as well as a weariness and acceptance, to both pieces’ narrators. These are voices chiseled down after years of confronting the infinite permutations of New York City; these are women who have come to find a certain peace in the familiar, however lackluster it may be. As Attenberg’s narrative spirals in, around, and through the nooks and crannies of the relationship, you get the sense that the only thing holding anything in the universe in place are those tacos, sitting there, “tart, tender, and lightly battered.” Which, it turns out, is also a lovely description of the story itself.
Poet and fiction writer Alan Michael Parker’s most recent effort, The Committee on Town Happiness, has been labeled a novel by some, a novel-in-stories by others, and a linked-story collection by still others. Whatever its label, The Committee, released by Dzanc Books last month, has been hailed as a success, initially by Kirkus, and then by Monkeybicycle and just this week at Electric Literature.
There are many elements that make The Committee unique. For one, it’s told from the perspective of the town’s committee, taking the first person plural “we” voice. For another, each of its 99 chapters (or stories, or vignettes, depending on who’s describing it), are only a couple of pages long, making this a book of Lydia Davis-like proportions. But these are recurring meditations with a clear through-thread: How does a small town keep itself happy? How does a small town’s leadership respond when its darker underbelly reveals itself and members of the town begin to disappear? Parker answers these questions with the often-absurd initiatives and votes proposed by various committees and town members. The results will make us laugh, just as Leslie Knope does on Parks and Recreation, but at other times, will play to the tensions and conflict we hope for in fiction. Parker’s language, like the hot air balloon on the cover and within the narrative, lifts us up as readers. Take a gander at his description of the balloon’s liftoff:
Oh, how the children clamored to ride in the basket. The great straw boat, the wind’s decisions. Weightlessness, a different kind of promise. But this was science, and the Committee on Science had commissioned the dear balloonist, N. Femiz, to rise above our town. To see. The air was a festival of smells, the dawn departure only by coincidence in competition with the dawn.
A small-town Southerner for most of his life, you can read more Parker’s recommendations for writing about fictional small towns here.