February 28: “The Truly Needy” by Lucy Honig

Happy Sunday, Story366 readers. If you’ve been following along, I’ve just completed a weeklong exploration into Bowling Green writers, alum from the program that granted me my MFA. It was nice to lay out a week’s worth of books ahead of time, to plan, but honestly, I’m not that much of a planner. I have no idea what my family’s eating for dinner in a few hours, let alone whose book I’m going to read from for tomorrow. Part of that is an impromptu lifestyle that I’ve thrived in, the ability to extemporaneously act, and react, in a given situation. Part of it is a quick wit, part of it is fairing well under pressure. Part of it is a clusterfuck of a brain that’s just lazy and disorganized. Whatever the case, I’m excited to be getting back to randomly grabbing a book off the stack, seeing what appeals to me, what grabs my whim, the roll of the dice, the luck of the draw. I’m going to do all these books stacked on my desk, anyway, so leaving it to chance makes it more fun. Exciting, even. Exhilarating would probably be pushing it.

That said, I chose today’s book because it came in the mail yesterday, I was on my way out for the day when I checked my mail, and threw it in the car. My son fell asleep while we were out, so I pulled under a tree and started reading. Some of the books on my big pile have been here since January 1, and a crazy part of me thinks it’s “unfair” to these books—as if they had feelings—to write about the one that just showed up. Logic won out, though, and I read me some Lucy Honig.

Honig’s collection, The Truly Needy, won the Drue Heinz Prize in 1999, making it one of the older books I’ve covered (Edward P. Jones’ Lost in the City is the only older book, if I’m not mistaken). Not that a 2000 release makes a book old, or non-contemporary, but I’ve seen Honig’s work around for a while, have liked a lot of the stories I’ve seen in journals (including some in this collection), I really wanted to cover her on Story366. I was happy to get her book in the mail, thinking Oh yeah, I ordered that, not realizing I’d be reading from it a couple of hours later.

“The Truly Needy,” the title story, tells the tale of Rita, a former activist from the sixties—marches and occupations and stuff—who has continued her good work as the paid executive director of a non-profit organization that helps homeless people. Honorable, for sure, and at forty-six, the Rita of our story has no doubt done more good for the world than 99 percent of anybody who’s walked the Earth. What a perfect career for a former protestor, to have such a profoundly positive effect on the people who need it the most.

While doing all of God’s work, for so many years, Rita’s lost sight of the overall goal. A lot of this is due to this ideal job, the fact that it’s an actual job, getting paid to do the things she would have, in her teens, done for free, would not have imagined taking a dime for. Social change doesn’t come with a paycheck, right? A girl’s got to eat, though, and if you’re going to “sell out,” as her generation would have so quickly said, why not sell out while helping to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless?

This may be true, but Rita’s undoubtedly gone soft. The same young girl, arrested so many times for public demonstration, has become accustomed to her lifestyle. At work, Rita helps people, undoubtedly, but at home, she has become persnickety, a woman who enjoys her designer salads, her intricate beverages, and her cushy, rent-controlled Manhattan digs; Rita has four rooms, and on a non-profit director’s salary, that’s normally impossible. Rita snubs her nose at her former friends who married rich lawyers, or became rich lawyers themselves; the next passage, she’s lamenting a particular type of croissant or espresso she can’t find. Rita’s attitude is that of the bourgeoisie, but you’d tell her that, it would kill her. Along with the chi-chi lifestyle conflict, Rita’s dealing with the fact that she’s just not an administrator. She has meetings, constantly, with the various heads of various branches of her non-profit. She has books to balance. She has board members to answer to. That’s not what she’s good at, however. Hippies burning their bras and marching on Washington didn’t have board members to answer to or books to balance or employees. She’s gotten the dream job, but she’s not stiff-shirted enough to pull it off.

Along the way, Honig has her protagonist make a series of mistakes that clue us in to all of this. Early in the story, we see Rita give a Cambodian staff member a nickname because she can’t pronounce her name, even calling Cambodians “cute,” too cute to respect. A recent clothing drive produces a sweet-ass sweater, one that finds its way into Rita’s closet. Central to the plot, a run-in with a neighborhood bag lady serves as the most demonstrative sign of who Rita is, what her shortcomings are. The bag lady, Deirdre, provides the greatest evidence of Rita’s shortcomings, but at the same time, almost saves her. All of it adds up to one richly painted unreliable narrator, a fantastic character in a great story.

In the end, “The Truly Needy” is about the death of idealism, how the convictions we have, when lofty, can be hard to sustain, especially when they’re no longer convenient. Maybe it’s about aging, too. Everything that Rita does now at forty-six, you’d have to say, for sure, she wouldn’t have done at twenty, twenty-six, or even thirty-six. Has she reached her breaking point? Is Honig saying there’s a shelf life on optimism? Last week, I sat next to a college senior at a luncheon, a senior who is shoulders-deep in political activism. We had a conversation, and at the end, she apologized for offending me, for not agreeing with me, and I told her it was no big deal, that I wasn’t offended. She, then, was clearly offended, because that conversation meant so much to her, but to me, it was lunch chat; I wasn’t going to be swayed by anything she had to say—not enough to change my vote—and that irked her. In a way, I wonder if I’m old Rita and this college student is young, bright-eyed Rita. I wonder.

Lucy Honig’s story “The Truly Needy” is a long, deep character analysis. It’s another story I like from a writer I like, and I recommend you search her out.

Lucy Honig