By Charles Rammelkamp
The fifteen stories that make up Iris N. Schwartz’s new collection of stories have a sort of New York Jewish sensibility and magic that make one think of Bernard Malamud. The characters are Malamudian – lonely, neurotic, vaguely troubled, slightly clueless. Take Joseph Fein, a character in the title story. Joseph is 38 and for some reason is in Hudson View Rehabilitation, wearing diapers. It’s apparently a temporary condition. He hopes to return to full continence soon. In the meantime, he needs assistance changing his diapers, and the story goes into great detail as the nurse, a woman named Giselle, maneuvers him around his bed, protecting his modesty as best she can while doing her job, wiping him up, securing him in the diaper. Joseph is plainly mortified and doesn’t get the woman’s name – she’s just a function. But if Joseph is the one who is ashamed in his isolation, we get the sense that Giselle is also alienated. She’s rescued at the end by a cup of coffee.
In some stories dreams and waking consciousness are confused together with an effect like some of Malamud’s stories in The Magic Barrel. Belle, in “At Liberty,” dreams of her wedding gown, which she has discarded along with the man she married. She’d married Benjy impulsively, almost out of desperation, but it soon became all too clear how limited he was. Not only was he a boring lover, but Belle “often imagined casting a fishing rod into Benjy’s throat to find and reel in synonyms superior to the words he chose.” Especially the word “nice.” Benjy drives Belle nuts calling everything “nice”: clothing, movies, food, everything.
Belle’s dreams are full of guilt for the wedding dress, which she has tossed into a garbage can in the basement of her apartment building. She dreams she sees the wedding dress soiled in a nearby vacant lot. She dreams an older woman commands her to rescue and bury the dress. Yet when she wakes up and goes for a walk, she discovers “between every shrub and flowerbed, were sleeves, hems, bodices,” and she is happy, no longer feeling guilt. “Her gown had found a home — ‘a very nice’ home.” Try not to laugh reading that line!
Similarly, in “Fur,” a woman named Dahlia is starved for the affection of a cat; she feels “feline deprived.” She falls asleep and is awakened by the doorbell. When she opens the door, she is greeted by a Maine Coon standing erect on two feet, wearing a blue suit. He asks her if she is ready to go shopping for cats. “Dahlia smiled. ‘Give me ten minutes, please. I’ll need to get dressed and get my coat.’” Which is the dream, which reality?
“Safety First” is another story in which dreams and guilt mix potently. Narrated in the first person by a divorced woman, we learn that the protagonist dreams of her ex-husband trying to kill himself. “He was gasping, red-faced, kicking his legs over a knocked-over chair.” Again, she dreams of him, picking at a nail on his big toe, blood bubbling from his foot. “By the second dream, I knew I couldn’t save him.”
All of these characters are seemingly stuck in their sense of remorse, their shame. This is true not just of Joseph and Giselle, Dahlia, Belle and the unnamed narrator of “Safety First,” but of the anal hygiene-freak protagonist of “Franklin Is In” and Paula Baumgarten in “Ever After,” the longest story in the collection, which also involves a failed marriage and the sense of regret that inevitably follows.
Two stories, “Nickled-and-Dimed” and “Dime-Store Bandits,” involve a pair of sisters, Imogene and Lenore, girls who have not quite reached puberty yet. In the first, Lenore, the younger sister, swallows a buffalo head nickel and Imogene calls 911. The upshot is that they have to alert their parents, who are out on a date together for the first time in years. In “Dime-Store Bandits,” Imogene watches, fascinated, as her younger sister pilfers candy from a Luncheonette, “nabbing Chunkys and Bazookas by the handful and shoving them into a back pocket.” Imogene, who like all older siblings is something of a cop, reporting bad behavior to their parents, is nevertheless “impressed” by her younger sister’s boldness and decides not to rat Lenore out. “After all, Mother didn’t need to know everything, did she?” Inspired, she goes to Woolworths and shoplifts herself! Childhood is full of stories of guilt and transgression.
A handful of the stories in Shame – “Gifts from God,” “Dogs,” “Yellow,” “Excuses,” “Age” – are micro-fictions that strike with the force of epiphany. Indeed, all of Schwartz’s fictions are succinct and dreamlike, hypnotic and enchanting, with the beguiling charm of Bernard Malamud stories.
You can find the book here:
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore, where he lives, and Reviews Editor for Adirondack Review. His most recent books include American Zeitgeist(Apprentice House) and a chapbook, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts ( Main Street Rag Press). Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, is forthcoming from Future Cycle Press.