February 12: “Opa-Locka” by Laura van den Berg

I don’t have a ton of Laura van den Berg anecdotes to share. I’ve met Laura several times, have read with her at least once, and recently bugged her for a blurb for a Moon City book (which she delivered). She and I had our first books come out on Dzanc some time last decade. Once, I lent a student my (signed) copy of What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, a copy completely obliterated by said student’s dog. My admiration for her (Laura, not the dog) is high. The closest thing I have to a funny story has something to do with Crocs, as once, like in 2009, she declared on FB that she hated Crocs, and since I love Crocs and have two pair—black and lime green (not joking here)—I defended Crocs. I think I replied to something on her wall with a picture of Crocs, and she was all like, “Ugh!” Good stuff.

Sometime later, I ran across a Crocs store in Chicago—an actual business that sells nothing but Crocs—and was like, “Oh, wow, Laura would hate this.” The next time I was downtown, I planned to bring Laura’s book—the then-still-intact What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us—and pose it on the shelf, in the middle of dozens of Crocs, then send it to her, post it on her wall, something like that. Then I’d be like “Ha! Got you, van den Berg!” and she’d be like “Noooooo!”

But then I realized how crazy that was, to carry her book around and take pictures of it around the city like I was Mark David Fucking Chapman or something. So I didn’t do it. In retrospect, a solid move.

Six years later, I’m still enjoying comfort, ventilation, and putting-on ease in my casual footwear, and am still enjoying Laura’s stories. Today I got to read a few stories from The Isle of My Youth, Laura’s second collection, and am excited to write about “Opa-Locka.”

“Opa-Locka” is a lot of stories in one. It’s a long story, and I notice that all the stories in The Isle of My Youth are longer than I remember them being in What the World Will Look Like (not that I can check, Amanda Conner’s dog …). The title piece is a novella, and maybe the author is just working her way up to novel-length, as Find Me came out next—her YA fantasy epic can’t be far behind. In any case, “Opa-Locka” is about a pair of sisters, sisters who are private detectives, the story opening with them on a roof, watching for their mark to come out of a hotel. They’ve been hired by the guy’s wife to follow, to find out if he’s having an affair, the standard not-TV PI case. The sisters stake him out one day, and into the next, and we get a lot of backstory in this time, a lot of interior dialogue. It’s a neat trick, using this lull in the action to get all this information out, and van den Berg’s voice and eye for detail really sell these early pages, where the characters literally just sit around and stare at a door.

So many things can happen at this point. The author had two choices, I’m guessing, to either have the guy come out of the hotel or not have him come out of the hotel. If he comes out, the story continues, moves to another location, and something else happens. If he doesn’t come out, then the characters have to act to make the story happen—it’s basic setting and plot lessons from the Intro to Fiction courses I teach. van den Berg chooses Door #2, as she makes the story happen from there, forcing the issue, which forces something greater: She allows her characters to develop. We find out a lot more about the protagonist’s sister Julia that way. Julia makes some rash decisions, but that’s no surprise, as we’ve already found out, this is not an uncommon occurrence for her.

Paralleling the case’s thread, we also find out that the sisters’ father walked out on the family when they were kids. It’s not that simple, though, and reveals what is perhaps van den Berg’s most impressive use of technique. Told in past tense, the narrator sister knows what’s coming, telling the story in retrospect, but she withholds information, reveals key points later than she has to. We find out, for example, that Julia did some time, for breaking and entering, which is why the narrator sister has the PI license, the gun license, is the actual owner of the business. We find this out two-thirds of the way through, even though van den Berg could have told us this in the set-up, up there on the roof. This technique helps make the story unpredictable, at the same time, revealing a lot about the narrator, why she would form a narrative that way. The answers come, via more revelations, and I buzzed through thirty-six pages, never anticipating any of the turns.

I love Laura van den Berg’s stories, and so do a lot of people, as she’s had a lot of deserved success. “Opa-Locka” is just another example of something she does so well, wayward people trying to find their way, not exactly succeeding. van den Berg’s a super-talented writer, one of my favorites.

Laura van den Berg