Here we are at the start of month number two and already I’m throwing a curveball at you: a theme week! I can’t say that I planned it this way, but lining up the stories and authors to read for this week, I ran into a coincidence: Three of the writers have a distinct connection to Missouri State University, the institution where I currently teach. Having three makes it a conspiracy, so I pushed a couple of people back and am going full-Bear this week, Missouri State authors Monday through Friday. It’s an unimaginitive theme week, I admit, but I’ll get more creative as the year passes, I’m sure. That all-lumberjack-story week or stories-that-mention-the-quince week are on the horizon.
Today’s author, Danielle Evans, has the loosest tie to MSU of any of the five writers I’ll feature. Evans taught at Missouri State in 2008-2009, just one year as an instructor before getting her post at American University (her last stop before her current job, at Wisconsin). As luck would have it, the spring of 2009 was the semester my first book came out and I went on tour, and Missouri State just happened to be one of the stops on my whirlwind across the Midwest. I had the pleasure of meeting Evans, having a meal or two with her, the faculty-eats-with-the-visitor-type, but also got to speak to one of her classes.
At the time, I didn’t know who Danielle Evans was—her books hadn’t come out yet—and I’m certain she didn’t know who I was, either. I visited four different classes that day, for four different teachers, and basically, told my story, how I came to be a writer, how my book came to be, that sort of thing. My talks took the entire fifty minutes, stretching to my work with Mid-American Review, as well as small-press publishing in general. It was nice for all of these people to have me in, to take a day up on their syllabi.
Not knowing Danielle Evans, I didn’t know her work or the successes she’d already had. She’d just had a story in Best American Short Stories with another one on the way, and was Ivy League-educated, topped off by an Iowa MFA. Her book—Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self—had to have already been optioned by Riverhead Books, and that time of the year, she probably knew she was headed to American in the fall. When Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self came out, I felt silly, not knowing who she was before I got there, not trying to0 hard to find out. A few years later, I was hired to teach at MSU, and have often recalled that day in Evans’ class, doing my schtick, this fantastic writer already sitting there. It’s weird how things work out.
The story I’ve chosen for today is from Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, “Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s Nowhere to Go.” I read one other—these are long stories—“Virgins.” Two stories in, I see some similarities in Evans’ themes, things like unrequited love, unrequited passion, unreliability, and persistent dishonesty. I admire how she structures her work, how many variables she puts in the play, yet how patient she is to see them converge, most of the pages spent building tension and establishing character. The best part of her work is how her protagonists find themselves in a predicament, but instead of figuring it out, they make it worse. Evans achieves head-turning levels of discomfort—watching her characters wretch is like watching the British version of The Office in a way, as I just wanted these people to stop doing what they were doing. How fantastic.
“Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s Nowhere to Go” tells the story of Georgie, back from a tour in Iraq, not quite the same as before, though this isn’t a PTSD story. Georgie had some bad episodes while in Iraq, getting him dishonorably discharged, but back stateside, he wants to pick up where he’d left off: Dating Lanae, who has a daughter, Esther, whom Georgie is equally fond of.
The problem is, Lanae was not impressed with Georgie joining the military and told him as much, leaving him when he was called to basic for Kenny, who wasn’t going to get killed and break her or Esther’s heart. Lanae could be seen as an antagonist in this story, but really, she’s just practical, a straight-shooter, looking out for her daughter. She’s not nearly attached enough to Georgie to become a a G.I.’s girlfriend, let alone a grieving widow. It’s kind of like Jimmy Cross and Martha in “The Things They Carried.” Lanae thinks Georgie is fine and all, and Georgie can stare at her picture while in the trenches, but that’s as far as she’s willing to let it go.
Georgie doesn’t take no for an answer, though, and soon ends up as Esther’s babysitter, one of those uncomfortable, awful choices I mentioned earlier. Georgie gets a front-row seat for Lanae’s life with Esther and Kenny, a KFC manager who isn’t the slightest bit threatened by Georgie or his love for Lanae. Georgie tortures himself, day after day, growing closer and closer to Esther, Lanae within an arm’s reach, Kenny just as close. Georgie thinks his rapport with Esther will make Lanae change her mind, but he fucks things up way before that plan can take seed, leading to more stupid decisions. We feel for him all the same, as we know he’s being manipulated by his heart.
Danielle Evans is a fantastic writer whose stories I admire greatly. Missouri State was lucky to have her for the short time they did, and I have students and colleagues who still remember her fondly, are glad to have known her. I look forward to delving deeper into Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self (the title taken from a line in a Kate Rushin poem, by the way), and to whatever she has coming in the pipeline.