What does it mean to be a good person? And who is our judge? In Robert Lopez's second story collection, "Good People," the writer looks at people trying to be good, decent folks in America, their attempts yielding decidedly mixed results.
In Lopez's world, misunderstood miscreants plead their cases of relative goodness to the reader, all while producing anxiety-inducing foreboding. All told in the first person, illustrating the outside world's unfairness and comic horror, what links these stories is each narrator's amiable psychosis. Lopez's methodical narrators will draw comparisons to Beckett, but they also share DNA with the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, showcasing out-of-touch anxiety cases in all their poetically elliptical glory.
Lopez's narrators have no intention of sugar-coating their misdeeds and intentions, as in "Goodbye Maybe Forever," which starts, "Today I will hang myself in the backyard" and continues as the narrator remembers beatings and attempts to create empathy for the perpetrator: "I wouldn't be surprised if beating someone was more exhausting than taking a beating." In short order, Lopez's narrator has turned our expectations upside down and engaged the reader in a revelatory argument about power.
Characters in the 20 stories in "Good People" are put upon by a struggle to fit in, do the right thing, and wield some kind of power in their relative anonymity and aimlessness. The story "The Sky Was Everywhere Like Water" begins, "There's a woman with her lip split open and it's not my fault," and crescendos with a dizzying end.
Lopez takes care in treading along the line of acceptable morality, questioning authority and the status quo, all while making us complicit by putting us in the mind-set of kidnappers and voyeurs and terrible people who populate his pages.
Readers are allowed into the head space of maladjusted ne'er-do-wells while they wander through their day-to-day terrorizing and threatening to maim their always-in-danger neighbors, family and friends. Lopez explores, time and time again, the idea that, "Every good man has something wrong with him, something fundamentally unwholesome and feeble." When a narrator describes his virginal sister in "Welcome to Someplace Like Piscataway," he does so with envy-inducing economy, cutting right to the quick: "You walk around her house and you know no one ever has sex here."
The book's shortest, two-page stories such as "The Problem With Green Bananas" and "Why We're Trapped in a Failed System" feel more like afterthoughts than fully formed jolts. But when given space to enchant us with the melodic rhythm of his well-crafted sentences, Lopez has the ability to give the reader whiplash with his unconventional and bewitching stories.
His humor is what drives the reader out of dwelling in the sewers, serving as much-needed air in windowless, stagnant rooms of dread. In "A Regular Day for Real People," the narrator is engaged in a high-stakes tennis match with a woman he wants to have sex with — a woman whose brother he has kidnapped for leverage. His narrator's nonchalance is unnerving, downplaying the severity of his power grab through implied threats of sexual violence toward his opponent.
Former losers, in Lopez's world, have found purpose through mayhem, engaging in desperate acts of attention and affection. In the standout story "Big People Everywhere," the narrator is waiting for a "happy ending" after a massage, while sizing up his masseuse and taking the reader on a hilarious journey of all the things he's too ashamed to talk about, including whether it appears obvious to others that he frequently enjoys rub and tugs. While reading, one has to wonder if all of our most illicit secrets follow us like a vapor.
Lopez encapsulates the struggle of people on the brink who see themselves as trying to get by in an unjust world, being judged harshly by those who, as in "Guiding Eyes for the Blind Dog Training School," "wear golf shirts tucked into Bermuda shorts, and boat shoes" and who drink "domestic beer from cans" and have "procreated at least once." These people do not take kindly to kidnappers or johns.
One feels slightly concerned that Lopez's narrators walk among us, sizing us up and forcibly keeping themselves in check from indulging in their basest needs, all while planning and obsessing over them in vivid detail.
Bellevue Literary Press: 190 pp., $16.95 paper
Waclawiak is the author of the novel "The Invaders."