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Janice Shapiro: Bummer and Other Stories

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Bummer and Other Stories

Fiction by Janice Shapiro

Soft Skull Press, softcover

Soft Skull Press closed its New York offices at the end of October to be housed out of its parent company Counterpoint’s West Coast offices, though its editorial staff didn’t move with it. Which is too bad, because few publishers would have the good sense and taste to publish stories as ordinarily beguiling and bizarre as the 11 found in Janice Shapiro’s Bummer. Each one checks in with a female narrator undergoing a life change, a moment of clarity, or just a profoundly crappy day. And Shapiro’s agile voice, generous humor, and balance of the tragic and vulnerable keep potentially depressing or ludicrous moments from sliding into cheap melodrama or cheekiness. The women’s lives here feel sincere and recognizable, which gives their fear and humor such passionate humanity.

And Shapiro refreshingly writes with a brisk voice that casually balances the preposterous and the mundane. Alison, the 21-year-old narrator of the title story who heads to Las Vegas with her mohawked boyfriend to get married and ends up kicking him out of the car, slides from remembering her frustrated life under the judgment of her older sister and the at-times baffling experience she has with the Latin American man she meets in a hotel casino. The now middle-aged woman of “Small” remembers a 1975 when she was a nubile Santa Cruz undergrad living with a group of petite men in Northern California, whom she gives “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” nicknames; during the day they tended to their high-grade pot farming, and during the night each tended to her—-one for every day of the week. In “Night and Day,” a high-powered Los Angeles talent manager realizes she’s traded success and power for love, and she thinks she might be OK with that.

Grounding these stories is the clarity of Shapiro’s vision of these women’s inner lives, the way fears and desires are entangled, the way motivations for action get thwarted by the safety of inaction. Shapiro’s most touching display here is in “The Old Bean,” where Penny, a middle-aged woman, has taken a job at a coffeeshop chain while her husband’s job has taken him overseas and their college-aged daughter has retreated from her. It’s a painfully candid display of workforce and life uncertainty congealing into a single moment, so while the narrator knows not to care about her bitchy young co-workers or the self-conscious rocker boy who kinda/sorta flirts with her, their youth reminds her of her daughter and herself, and almost everywhere Penny looks makes her think of the choices she’s made as a woman and a parent—a bittersweet story in a collection that values emotional honesty over writerly artifice.

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