Edith Pearlman's fiction is all about the ways we touch each other — albeit not in the manner we expect. Sure, there are lovers in her stories: husbands and wives, young women and their feckless boyfriends, girls experiencing the first taste of something we might recognize as desire. The connection to which I'm referring, though, is different, involving a kind of witness, a space in which a secret is exposed.
"The dialogue began in a confidential mode and soon acquired a tone of intimacy," Pearlman explains in "Castle 4," a story in her new book, "Honeydew," which describes the relationship between an anesthesiologist named Zeph and the patients with whom he consults before sedating them. Zeph is just one of the characters who functions in the role of a confessor; there is also Paige, the widowed pedicurist at the center of "Tenderfoot," or Rennie, who appears in several of these pieces, the proprietor of Forget Me Not, a curio shop in the fictional town of Godolphin, Mass.
This is one of the key dynamics of Pearlman's fiction, the ability she has to reveal someone in an instant, to let us see what happens when the guards come down. "She tried to listen to the couple's soft, low conversation," she writes in "The Little Wife," collected in 2011's "Binocular Vision." "… But all she could hear were a few syllables that might have been, that should have been, that probably weren't 'love' and 'remember' and 'afraid.'"
"Binocular Vision" was Pearlman's breakout book, a National Book Award finalist and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. It marked her as a writer to watch, as they say — in the vein of Alice Munro or Deborah Eisenberg — although she'd been around for nearly 40 years. "Honeydew" is her follow-up, featuring 20 stories, and it cements her reputation as an American short fiction avatar. The work is smart and deeply rendered, full of striking observations and some of the best sentences you'll ever want to read.
Here is Pearlman on a quiet older woman, slowly slipping into decline: "It was as if she had once been almost smothered and then allowed to live only if she limited her vocabulary and breathed hardly at all." Or this, about the inevitable separation between parents and their offspring: "When he took a walk with his mother, he put one hand in hers, like collateral, while his mind wandered somewhere she couldn't follow, and she had to relinquish the treasured notion that mother and child were one." One hand in hers, like collateral? I bow my head in awe. It's an exquisite image, visceral and yet also unexpected, and it casts the entire relationship with a concrete clarity, allowing us to see it whole.
What Pearlman is describing is negotiation, which is at the heart of most human interaction, after all. Such negotiation is often about leverage; in "Flowers," a wife, "insufficiently attended to," sends herself flowers on Valentine's Day to stir her husband's jealousy or interest, while "Puck" involves a widow coming to terms with her past.
Pearlman, though, is anything but a sentimentalist, and whatever accommodations she affords her characters, they are tempered by a distance that cannot quite be bridged. "Love consists in this," she writes, quoting Rilke: "that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other" — and the key word in that passage is "solitude."
In "Blessed Harry," a wife spies on her Latin teacher husband as he works a second job selling shoes. "She knew his shame," Pearlman explains, "at having to sell footwear in order to increase the family's comfort, and she knew the secondary shame that so respectable an extra job should cause that first shame." "Cul-de-Sac," on the other hand, tells of an overbearing neighbor who is missed only after she moves away. "She wanted to … mean so much to us," one woman says, as if that were folly; "Indeed," another adds. "We mean so little to each other."
This is ruthless writing, sharp and piercing, a story that pivots on its final sentence, revealing that friendships we thought were substantial are really just a set of shallow roots. Something similar occurs in "Hat Trick," in which a mother connives to coax her daughter and three friends toward romance, although here the turn is more accepting: "You did a marvelous thing," the daughter tells her later. "We are all happy enough."
Happy enough, of course, is the best we have to hope for, we who must live and die in this world. Such a notion, or bit of knowledge, flows throughout these stories like a soul.
In "Sonny," a teenage girl must reckon with a pair of illnesses: that of her father, who recovers, and that of the vegetable man's son, who does not. "Why couldn't this bunch of underprivileged Jews let themselves go, become unseemly fools; what a relief that would be," Pearlman writes of the boy's funeral. "They could storm up to the bimah and kill the robed representative of an incompetent God."
God, however, is not incompetent, at least not here, so much as absent, leaving us to fend for ourselves. This is why the teenager's mother finds herself praying, as she thinks of her daughters, "not for lives free of sorrow — what deity would heed that request? No; she made a sensible plea: she prayed that all three would turn out to be barren."
That's another fiercely rendered invocation, with its sense that we are girded, either way, by loss. Either we remove ourselves, in which case we suffer in our solitude, or we engage and suffer from proximity and love. It's irreconcilable — although in the end, that is not the point Pearlman is making but rather that we have to live with it nonetheless.
"Life and death?" she writes in "Blessed Harry." "They were incidental, in her opinion, although of course she deplored suffering. But what counted was how you behaved while death let you live, and how you met death when life released you. That was the long and short of it."
Yes, the long and short of it, which brings us back to the role of the confessor and the necessity, the difficulty, of intimacy. It is only when we let ourselves be heard, Pearlman means to tell us, that we connect, if only for an instant, and in that brevity, that evanescence, find not only each other but also ourselves.
Little, Brown and Co.: 275 pp., $25