January 19: “The Cemetery of Lost Faces” by Amber Sparks

Without question, the strangest predicament I ever found myself in was when a high school girlfriend’s mom wanted me to kick her husband’s ass. I was seventeen, had just started dating this person, and was down in her basement after school one day, doing homework (i.e., making out). My girlfriend’s parents had just separated—the dad stepped out—and the mom kicked him out. Interrupting a furious algebraic session, Mom came downstairs, greeted me like I was the long-lost Messiah of her personal religion, and explained that her husband was coming home to pick up some things. If he got testy, refused to go, or just lingered too long, she’d like it if I puffed up, stood behind her, escorted him out, if it reached that point. If things got out of hand, I was going to protect my girlfriend, her mom, and her little sister. The mom said something like, “I don’t think he’ll try anything, not with you here.”

I had been dating this girl for a week at best, and suddenly, I was handed this great responsibility. There I was, in some guy’s house, groping his daughter one minute, getting instructions to whip his ass, then evict him, the next. I don’t remember what I’d said—probably something non-committal: “Oh, is that right?” or “You don’t say ….”—but within ten minutes, there this guy was, down in the basement, saying hello. My girlfriend wanted no part of him, and the dad never looked at me or even acknowledged my presence. Just when it seemed like I was going to have to put up or … leave, I guess … the guy turned around, walked back upstairs, and was gone. The mom came bouncing down the stairs, thanked me enthusiastically for what I’d done, gave me some cookies or muffins or something, and told me I was welcome any time; in fact, it’d be nice if I could come over every day after school until things cooled down.

So rare was the girl willing to make out with me, I shouldn’t have balked at these tangential responsibilities. Still, soon after, things with this girl ended—I can’t say the dad situation didn’t play a role—and my bouncer job was over. I didn’t have to beat on some forty-something roly-poly guy in his own house, and better yet, said guy didn’t have to beat on roly-poly me, or worse, bring a gun the next day and shoot the crap out of me when he came to get his toothbrush.

Until I read Amber Sparks’ “The Cemetery of Lost Faces,” I thought I had the best significant-other-mom story ever, but not any more. While this character—the protagonist’s boyfriend’s mom—is only a minor part of this story, appearing in only two scenes, she is perhaps the greatest character I’ve come across in American literature. It’s not only what she does, but what she wants done (note, as I move forward, what the protagonist does for a living). Without revealing anything else, I’ll repeat: This character’s brief impression alone makes Sparks’ new book, The Unfinished World, worth buying and reading. She makes my ex-girlfriend’s mom—combined with DeNiro in Meet the Parents and the mother-in-law in Eraserhead—quite normal in comparison. National Book Award for Best Supporting Character in a Short Story.

The rest of the story is pretty great, too. “The Cemetery of Lost Faces” is about a sister and a brother, Louise and Clarence, the eccentric children of wealthy intellectuals and home-schoolers. They have lived their lives both together and separate, as close as siblings can be, geographically and emotionally, yet unaware and unconcerned with each other’s personal lives. When Mom and Dad die in an accident and the money runs out, they find themselves unable to function in the world. They have to pay taxes on their spacious childhood estate. Bills mount. They have to eat. This is where their parents’ greatest lessons—taxidermy, mostly—come in handy: They make their way by taking on questionable projects, from even more questionable clients (including Louise’s boyfriend’s mom).

I love the set-up for this story, a couple of independent, super-smart siblings, trained to be Audubon-type naturalists, who instead taxidermy for the mob. If you’re a writer and have to thumbnail your next story idea, think of this scenario, of thinking up a story based on this premise. Jealous? A lot of the stories in The Unfinished World sport equally great set-ups. “The Janitor in Space” is exactly what it sounds like, as is “Thirteen Ways of Destroying a Painting.” Sparks somehow makes “The Lizzie Borden Jazz Babies” make perfect sense. She is a writer with limitless creativity, but also the skill set to see her concepts to their end, for the characters to resonate, for the endings to make sense without being predictable. Every story in the book offers something I haven’t read before, and as you can guess, I’ve read a lot of stories.

The Unfinished World has been getting outstanding reviews since its release this past week. I’ve been a fan of Amber Sparks’ writing for a while—her first book, May We Shed These Human Bodies, came out from my press, Curbside Splendor—but I’ve seen her work in literary magazines for a while. Seems like this great talent is getting her due, all of it earned, and then some.

Amber Sparks