I am not a little adult. I am ten. I am a child and I expect to be treated as a child […] I expect to be bought ice cream cones and talked to stupid and left alone. […]
Many words begin with E. Eviscerate, Echt, Eldritch, Effervesce, Excreta, Ememtottot. No one but me knows that, what ememtottot means. […]
I have an interest in pythons. I am tired of being a special child. I want to chase cars. No, that’s wrong, that’s dogs. (1-2)
This is the voice of Elliott, the narrator of “Siberia,” the first story in Steven Barthelme‘s collection Hush Hush. I heard Steve read the story on campus a few years ago, and its peculiar character stuck with me, so I was happy to find it here. Elliott is only the first of a series of memorable characters. There’s also the nameless narrator (in the story titled “Heaven”) who listens to a pretentious poet’s phone conversation and tells us that
Last week, God and Jesus were in the main lobby, laughing about Hell. ‘Who could have known that they’d take that seriously?’ God said. ‘They’ve been worrying about that for two thousand years!’ he snorted, and fell into convulsions of laughter. ‘And — and –‘ Jesus said, wiping tears from his shining eyes, ‘and we were only kidding! God, they must think we’re mean!’ And they walked off slapping their foreheads and kneecaps and Jesus’ hat fell off. His eyes are intensely beautiful, blue. Very tall. (17)
He explains that the poet “does not think of himself as a dull, careerist predator and sham […] He wants to know awe. He wants to have important things to say […] He wants to see. […] His eyes are terrible”(19). The cinch the poet is in, this inkling of his own shortcomings and failure and this yearning for meaning, this is what connects many of the characters in these stories.
Take Mitchell, for example, whom we meet mid-fist-fight in a drunken daze. Or Terry, who quits his lawyer job and becomes a mechanic in the aftermath of a break-up. “I’m home, he thought. I’ll move into the apartment, subscribe to the paper. Get a library card. Some regular shoes” (34).
Then, there’s the narrator who lets us in on his writing process in “The New South: Writing the Newsweek Short Story” — as his account progresses, it becomes clear that he takes liberties with anything and everything, and that quite possibly none of it is true. Writers, whether they produce prose or poetry, clearly cannot be trusted.
Hush Hush is also peopled by cats. Bailey, a man with a gambling habit, finds one suddenly in his car when he returns from borrowing money from his ex: “The black cat, emaciated and hostile looking, sat staring at him, curled on the back seat like a furry black shrimp. Bad luck, Bailey thought” (43).
Although his first impulse is to get the cat out of his car and leave, he does try to feed it: “The cat jerked forward and cleaned all three Cheetos in one bite” (44). He ends up taking the cat home, in a sort of act of solidarity with the stray when someone (incidentally, his ex’s new beau) threatens to shoot the cat. In the end, the miserable stray seems to be an agent of change, a hope of a random chance that things might still work out, somehow.
There are more cats in “Bye Bye Brewster,” a story of an odd friendship between two men who happen to live in the same apartment complex:
One month I took him to the eyeglasses place six times on lunch hours and hours out from work, trying to get him a pair of glasses through which he could see. I never knew, still don’t know, whether the glasses were good and he was just crazy or whether the optometrists and opticians were the most incompetent fools God ever made. It was funny, watching them try to deal with him, condescending but forgiving him everything because he was old, him playing that for all it was worth. (75)
The friendship of the two men becomes strained when one of Brewster’s nine cats, Killer-T, starts spending the night at the narrator’s place rather than at Brewster’s. Our narrator has his own name for the cat: Snowshoe.
Cats even show up where there are no cats: In “Vexed,” we meet the narrator’s brother’s girlfriend, Teresa, who “has sleepy green eyes and a cat’s smile” (94).
Another connecting thread between the stories is that of broken / breaking relationships, whether the character is divorced, about to be divorced, or hoping to patch things up. This works mainly because Barthelme’s characters are complex and idiosyncratic — each situation is unique, yet the character somehow relatable. They look at the world in interesting ways:
I have crooked little feelings, I guess, nothing you could write a magazine article about. Not like these people with these giant, rectangular emotions that sound like volumes of an encyclopedia. Guilt, Hysteria, Independence, Joy, Loss, Zed. Rot. (113)
Incidentally, the very next line gives us another cat: “Sometime that morning I told Becky that my cat was out in the rain overnight. ‘Slick?’ she said — I didn’t even know she knew his name.” Another cat in “Ask Again Later”: “‘I’m unwinding,’ Zach said. He nodded at the black cat in the steel cage beside him. ‘Me and Hector. Decrepit old fuck” (130). I guess part of why I kept noticing the cats is because I have a soft spot for the creatures, but I do see a pattern.
In any case, there is so much to like about this book, cats or no cats! The stories are very short, the characters interesting, unusual but convincing, and the book is a memorable collection of keen observations of life, — warts, exes, strays and all. Especially strays.
If you like short stories, you might also enjoy these:
- Curtain of Green (Eudora Welty)
- Flannery O’Connor‘s short fiction
- Little Black Book of Stories & Sugar and Elementals (A. S. Byatt)
- Sixty Stories (Donald Barthelme)