By Charles Rammelkamp
“I walked purposefully down the cobblestone streets, as if I knew exactly where I was headed. I’d figure out the direction as I went along, like I’d done many times before,” Leah Mueller writes in the story, “Leaving Bisbee.” It kind of sums up the narrator’s modus operandi throughout these tales. Subtitled Tales of Poor Life Choices, the stories are not so much about “misguided behavior” as they are about improvising with the less than ideal hand you’ve been dealt.
There’s a sly humor at work in these stories, too, as is evident from the very title of the book. Mueller can also finish off a tale of hardship with a spark of dry wit. Take the story, “Other People Ruin Everything,” a bit of graffiti she reads on the wall in a bathroom stall in a bar in Seattle. (“Hell is other people,” Sartre famously wrote in No Exit.) She’s gone into a bar she used to frequent, for old times’ sake, only to be waylaid by the other customers there, people with their own agendas. When she leaves, she finds a parking ticket on her car: the whole neighborhood has been gentrified since she was last there, along with new parking restrictions. The whole evening underscores the wisdom of the graffiti. But she concludes with the reflection, “On the other hand, most of us manage to do a damn good job on our own.” Hah!
In these autobiographical tales that span over three decades, we follow the protagonist from one weird job/situation to another, starting with her mother, in “Running from the Law.” Polly drives up to Chicago from Mexico with several pounds of marijuana stowed in the car. She has a half-baked idea to sell the pot for a fortune – or rather, to have her daughter sell it for a fortune! (Later, in “Queen of Rage,” she will goad her son to steal a Christmas tree!) Needless to say, it doesn’t work out.
Then there’s the telephone sex scam (“The Lust Peddlers”), the pole-dancing in a New Orleans bar (“Nobody’s Prerogative”), life as an itinerant astrologer reading tarot cards, and in the soul-numbing, yet funny story, “The Clown Chronicles,” dressing up and passing out fliers on Michigan Avenue in Chicago for a sketchy outfit called the Education Zone. The story begins: “An extended period of abject poverty led to my decision to become a clown.” She answers an ad that begins: “Fun job! Man or woman with cheery disposition and friendly personality….” Cheery? Friendly? You can imagine how that job requirement goes down.
It’s a life of invention, ad-libbing, extemporizing, as she gets blindsided left and right, and yet, she maintains a stoic attitude. “Despite my own hardships,” she writes in “The Other Side of the Cage,” a story about being stoned and lost in a zoo in New Orleans with her boyfriend, “I remained entrenched in the belief that my luck would change.”
Not all of the stories are about jobs, of course, but also about complicated relationships. The narrator’s dumped and been dumped by more boyfriends than you can keep track of, married at least three times. And then there’s that strange mother! Talk about having to make adjustments on the fly!
“People tell me I’m an extrovert,” she writes in “San Francisco Heart,” “but I don’t believe them. I’m way too fond of losers to be an extrovert. Losers are awkward, unable to play well with others. They’re my tribe.” Elsewhere she writes, “I felt infinitely safe with fucked-up people.” “San Francisco Heart” and the following story, “Leaving Ypsilanti,” are about a problematic relationship with a character named Greg, with whom she carries on an affair while being married to another guy named Roy. Yeah, it’s complicated.
In one amusing story, “Cities Where You’ve Lived, As Boyfriends,” Mueller mashes up these threads of romance and making a life for yourself (job, family, etc.). “Portland is your hipster boyfriend with a tongue ring,” she starts. Kalamazoo? “…the boyfriend who gets drunk, smashes your possessions, and steals your laptop so he can sell it to buy crack.” Then there’s Chicago, Tacoma, Seattle, where she ends with characteristic Mueller sardonic wit: “Seattle won’t even answer your calls.”
And where does it all end? Remember, this is a person who is confident her luck will change. The protagonist of these tales is an optimist, essentially, who refers to her “grim, Germanic sense of responsibility.” In “Time to Go, Grasshopper,” the narrator remarks, “I can sleep at night, knowing I’m not too much of a fraud.” Is there such a thing as karma for this person?
The final story, “The Sunshine Court,” set in 2025, depicts a rosier finale. The protagonist, Lola (mostly the narrator identifies herself as “Leah” in these stories, but Lola has similar attitudes, habits and outlook), a woman in her early 60’s, has settled into a retirement community in the state of Oregon that sounds too good to be true. Simpatico neighbors who look out for each other in interesting ways. A fantasy? A happy ending? You decide.
These stories are funny, erotic (“The Great Canadian Beaver-Eating Contest,” for one, set at the Burning Man festival in Nevada), insightful and brave.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Misguided-Behavior-Tales-Poor-Choices/dp/1989225241
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by Future Cycle Press.