In any collection of short stories, I read the shortest of the stories first. It is a sort of challenge to the author: Show me what you can do in a tight spot. In “Squabble,” John Holman’s debut collection, that meant starting with a tie between “I Did That” and “Presence.”
“I Did That” is atypical of a collection presented as six vignettes, six reminisences from childhood that have a dreamlike quality and are oddly affecting. The narrator recalls an attack by a pack of dogs--" 'Dogs that bite you,’ I said several times that summer. I was otherwise too young to tell more"--and a first love at the age of 6, the loves that followed “like the adding on of blankets. No matter how many cover me, it is the first one I always feel.”
“Presence” shows that Holman paid attention when he was a student of Raymond Carver. Like the work of his teacher, Holman’s stories contain not one word more than is necessary. These stories stand their ground, not because nothing can be added but because nothing can be taken away. Both writers’ characters are, if not making it, then making due, trying--some of them--to do better. “I’d like to change,” says a woman in “Peso Street.” “What you are wearing is lovely,” says her date. “No, I’d like to change. You know, myself.”
Holman’s characters are young blacks in the “new” South. They are a deposed academic, a geography professor who finds himself tending bar in a dive; drug dealers who do business out of the vacant houses secured by a realtor friend who owes a favor; a pimp who returns to his home town; a trucker whose license has been revoked because of a fight with his sister; people who break into fights at a funeral--"chicks and everything"--and a rock-quarry worker who enrolls in night school to bring himself up to full machinist, and who is struck by the “paradise” of night-school colors--the orange and blue vinyl furniture--in contrast to the gray uniform of the quarry.
In “Scuff” (great title), the parents of an unemployed 19-year-old have sent him to live with his sister, who works for the National Labor Board, because he can’t stay out of trouble. He watches wrestling on TV, and likes to roughhouse in her apartment. Since his arrival, his sister keeps finding things broken--a cracked vase, ripped carpet, scuff marks on the walls, a broken picture frame--portents of her own doomed affair with her married boss. When fraternal consolations arrives in “Scuff,” it is more headlock than hug.
One of the best stories in this collection is “Pimp,” and it is far from the cliches that word calls to mind. Holman tells the story through the pimp’s best childhood friend, Becky, now 19, who hasn’t seen Todd since his family moved away six years earlier. When she hears he is back in town, she is painting her toenails; issues of Cosmopolitan and Ebony are about--"I had been reading articles on orgasm and entertainers in a self-conscious effort to gain some social sophistication for college,” she explains.
When Todd sees her again, he thanks her for all the letters she wrote, and says he never answered because “I didn’t know how to talk like I still lived here.”
As he tells her what his life has been, Becky thinks it is “like reading, something that was real until you pulled back and looked at the pretty cover . . . and knew what was in the book couldn’t harm you. And Todd was a pretty cover . . . “
Later, a nighttime drive with the jazz station on the radio turns into something else. Holman wisely does not go overboard here; things are just wrong enough to displace the “harmless” Todd of Becky’s memory.
Holman is credible writing in a young woman’s voice, but is less adept elsewhere. Unless you are Jay McInerney, writing in the second person is likely to sound like an irritating exercise in range: " . . . you are vaguely frightened. Maybe you are developing agoraphobia.” Then again, maybe I’m not.
These are not stories that ever move a reader to tears. And the “squabble” of the title story--a kind of flirtatious verbal sparring--isn’t clever enough for the attention that is called to it. (Holman also studied with Frederick Bartheleme, a master of the fast, fresh exchange.)
But Holman finishes big with “Monroe’s Wedding.” Monroe asks Thompson, his boss of three weeks on a ground-maintenance job, to be best man at his wedding. “It’s you or some joker I can bribe,” Monroe says. Thompson goes to the mall to look for a wedding gift and ends up looking at televisions for himself in a rent-to-own store. He flirts with the blond saleswoman as she runs a credit check on him, even invites her to Monroe’s wedding. She declines, but he feels “fairly sure he could get her to go to the wedding with him; their encounter had crossed over the line between customer and salesperson,” even though he figures “her family probably owned the store and considered blacks to be people who would steal their VCRs.”
The story ends when Thompson begins to imagine his date as the only white woman at the wedding. His projection is honest, startling and somewhat chilling. John Holman’s telling of it is absolutely sure.