March 3: “Single, Carefree, Mellow” by Katherine Heiny

Welcome to Wednesday, Story366 readers! Today brings up an interesting question, one I’d like to answer in the form of a new feature, “Ask Story366:”

Mike C. of Springfield, MO, asks,

Story366, do you ever read sad stories? It seems like you’re so upbeat, always reading weird, quirky, and surprising stories. Do people not write sad stories, or do you just not read them or blog about them?

 Story366 responds:

Great question, Mike C. of Springfield! It does indeed seem like I prefer a unique brand of fiction. Surely, though, I read all kinds of stories. Each day, when I pick up a book, I start reading random stories, always trying to get to the title story, then picking one or two others, maybe even three. Out of those I read for the blog, I pick the one that’s easiest to write about, something that inspires an introduction, something I can connect to the book as a whole. Maybe I have an anecdote about the writer. Often, those stories are more upbeat, but maybe I subconsciously gravitate away from sad. I like sad stories, but I wonder if the sad will transfer over if I think about them too much, construct essays around them. Sometimes, though, the sad story is the best story, the easiest to write about, or all the stories I read are sad and I don’t have time to read further, to find something else.

Because I chose your question, Mike C., I will be sending you an official Story366 coffee tumbler and Story366 mouse pad. Send me your address off list so I can get that stuff to you pronto! 

Since “Ask Story366” receives so many questions, I picked the most popular one, and the one most eloquently worded. Something about that Mike C. guy’s prose style, in just a couple of sentences, that I connected with. I wonder if he writes at all himself?

I felt that we needed a little bit of levity today, dear readers, as I’m presenting a story that’s less than happy, “Single, Carefree, Mellow.” It’s the title story to Single, Carefree, Mellow, the excellent collection by Katherine Heiny from Knopf. Because there’s no way to get around it and still write any sort of post, I’ll come out and say it’s about a sick dog and the sensitive person who loves it. Anything sadder? Sure, a sick child is sadder, trumped only by sick children, but that’s not the story Heiny wrote. A dying dog is sad enough for today.

The dog, Bailey, is not the protagonist of the story (though I’d argue that more stories should feature dogs, and healthy and happy ones at that), as instead, we have Maya, someone who’s kind of sad herself. A lot of that has to do with Bailey’s condition, but she also needs to break up with her boyfriend, Rhodes, because he’s just not the one. He’s fine, he loves her, she loves him, but Maya has noted some imperfections. He’s too tall, doesn’t have sisters Maya can bond with, and Bailey—who’s clock is ticking—likes him better than he likes her. Not enough to get Maya to a support group, but then again, nobody says you have to settle.

Heiny summarizes Maya’s attitude in her opening paragraph, telling us that Maya is much more upset about Bailey’s condition than she is about her failing relationship with Rhodes. That’s not all that shocking—lots of people like their dogs more than their too-tall boyfriends. It’s just that Bailey’s mortality is much more prevalent here, whether he survives this predicament or lasts another couple of years. All of the emotions that Maya feels for Bailey are turned into animosity toward Rhodes, and the story is more about Maya’s arc as an adult than it is about what happens to Bailey or with Rhodes. Maya’s complex journey, her thought processes, on display via Heiny’s manic depiction, make this a helluva character sketch. It’s rich, rewarding story, even if it’s not the cheeriest.

Along the way, Heiny populates Maya’s tale with quirky characters—Rhodes’ parents, Hazalene and Desmond, his younger sister, brooding teen Magellan, and overenthusiastic Dr. Drummond. There’s also a running bit that further illustrates Maya’s romantic profile, as it appears as if every man in the story, be it her boss, veterinarian, or econ professor, could be a suitable replacement for Rhodes (though even she admits she’d find Rhodes-like faults with them as soon as the’d get together). Maya is a woman who needs to be with not only someone, but more specifically, the next someone. She’s a great character, so complicated in her fickleness, you can’t help but like her, even if she is a bit silly.

Katherine Heiny’s Single, Carefree, Mellow was on of the celebrated collections of 2015 and it’s easy to see why, her stories so accessible, yet so dynamic. I’m glad to have discovered this writer, even after she incited a dying dog post. After all, the sun’s out, and that’s really all I ask.

Katherine Heiny