“Here Is What You Do” by Chris Dennis (Soho Press; 216 pages, $16)
Are you ready for characters who push each other to extremes? Psychologically, sexually, financially — you name it. Some of the most obvious of the manipulators look to get themselves something that might ease their self-loathing. But all of them — and their possible victims, or maybe there’s a level at which they’re all just unwitting co-conspirators — are actually clay beings molded by Chris Dennis, a short story writer with skills worth readers’ attention. That is, if you’ll follow him into atmospheric abysses and wince-worthy tension over eight stories.
The lead-off story gives this collection its title. Expository flashbacks and prison-life details peel the layers off a protagonist who keeps busy making excuses for himself and acceding to the sexual demands of his cellmate. As the relationship becomes more complex, the author opens up the story by playing tricks with pacing. It’s a bold strategy, shaking up the reading experience as a way to demand reconsideration of the characters’ choices.
Dennis’ work is promoted as “a vital new voice in queer fiction,” and it is written with careful consideration, although that is not the only theme presented. This seems separate, though, from Dennis’ ease at showing how all kinds of intimate exchanges (and a good many matters of familial support and even simple neighborliness) can be fucked-up right from the get-go. The centerpiece of the collection, “The Book-Eating Ceremony,” is gloriously over the top. Much like the title story messed around with how to shift the reading experience of being in the moment, there’s a meta element here that dashes the reader against polar dynamics of disgust (the protagonist reflexively questions whether “ … every pervert distinguishes herself by the manner in which she chooses to condemn others?”) and then sentimental hope. This tale stops just short of hysterics — but if you can hang on and flip the pages for the full ride, there’s a surprising emotional workout to be had.
For a short collection, there’s room to see into many characters reflecting on how they came to be in difficult (and occasionally absurd) straits. A 40ish woman who backs out of her difficult history as both child and parent becomes a party girl on an exotic vacation. She claims she needs “something simpler, something lighter and brighter than the greedy, black reptile sidewinding through her body most days … ” But what she’ll get is an encounter with a tsunami. It’s part of Dennis’ stylistic strength that the stifling aftermath becomes more important than the obvious metaphorical disaster.
The collection’s outliers merit mention. It certainly seems to be courting bad taste to fictionalize Coretta Scott King. The results have a measure of success, though, as she is unfortunately an apt figure to be considering how life changes by what happens in the story “In Motel Rooms.” But not every reader will want to follow Ms. King’s litany of losses of trust — of her husband’s fidelity, of friendships that she comes to see as opportunism and of the societal institutions tearing at her wish for private dignity.
The other piece that stands out is “This Is a Galaxy.” By whatever means — perhaps it’s a little more influence from John Cheever and a less from early Denis Johnson — this lightly touches upon everything that works in Dennis’ stories. But its balance of poignancy, mainstream discretion about an important gay relationship and modesty when dipping into literal viscera (butchering, rot and disassembly seem to come up by the bucketful whenever Dennis goes to the well), paradoxically confer a slight disappointment. This author accomplishes by exciting and evoking. He feels he’s got to rub his readers’ noses in some nasty muck — but he goes about this with discipline and often achieves something unique for a debut collection. •