Today for Story366, I’m trying to do something that will probably be crucial to the success of Story366 all summer: Writing my post during the Cub game. Including today, there’s 152 games left in the regular season, most of which I’ll watch, so maybe I can conflate the two efforts. I can’t read the stories during the game—I need concentration to read—but writing the post? Let’s see if I can pull that off.
Today’s post will be about Danit Brown’s story “Ask for a Convertible,” the title piece from her debut collection from Pantheon, Ask for a Convertible. The title comes an anecdote in the story that the protagonist, Osnat, hears from a friend. Whenever a Jewish guy she knows would bring home a gentile girlfriend, their parents would freak out and offer them a car to end the relationship. Sometimes her friends would find a fake goy, just to get the car, and their friends would kid, “Ask for a convertible.”
This is symbolic, in a lot of ways, of the relationships that Osnat has with non-Jews, and really, Jews, too, throughout the story, throughout the whole book, as she’s the protagonist, as far as I can tell, in all the stories. Her relationship with people seems unnatural, put on, fake, for a variety of reasons. Maybe it’s because Osnat thinks she’s supposed to be in a relationship. Or because she wants to make someone else happy. Or because she’s actually feeling alone. In the stories I’ve read, relationships are the featured conflict, as Osnat is lost, more or less, in the dating world. She dates men, whenever she wants, be it seriously, as a one-night stand, or somewhere in-between, so it’s not like she can’t find a man. She just can’t be happy.
This conflict is parallel with another, Osnat’s inability to reckon her Jewish heritage with wherever she’s living. She’s an Israeli by birth, moved to Michigan by her American father, and feeling out of place. Dating American men makes her feel guilty, anxious, but later in the book, she moves back to Israel, where she can’t connect with Israeli men, let alone the culture, everyday living. Ask for a Convertible is the story of Osnat’s inability to adjust, be it with her culture or with men, and this duel theme makes for a strong collection.
“Ask for a Convertible,” the story, finds Osnat mid-book, at a point where she’s resigned herself to marry Chris, a Catholic guy from Wisconsin. She likes Chris, can’t make up enough reasons not to marry him, but when she has to go to his family homestead for Christmas, as his bride-to-be, she gets cold feet. She goes and she’s miserable the whole time. Chris’ family isn’t at any point disrespectful, let alone mean or unwelcoming, but they’re full-blown Catholics at Christmas, and by the end of the story—climaxing at the traditional Christmas mass—she knows this isn’t what she wants, what’ll make her happy.
Osnat is a fickle character, willing to try to adapt to anything, but adapting to none of it. She’s a great character, and Brown has fun with her, making her endearing instead of annoying. For example, Chris, according to the book’s jacket, is the name of every non-Jewish boy she dates in America, just a small T away from the Son himself. Osnat also likes to go to fortune tellers for advice, and the one in “Ask for a Convertible” offers a 97 percent accuracy rate, touted in a neon sign in the window, as her selling point. Touches like this make this story, this book, about great characterization, great writing, more than just a woman with relationship and cultural identity issues. All of the stories in the book are twenty to twenty-five pages long, but read much more quickly, as they’re funny and they never stand still, picking up on Osnat’s neurosis, never settling in, never getting comfortable.
So, it’s the bottom of the 7th in the Cub game, and I’m done with this post. That’s a good sign. Really, most of the time, I’ve been focused on Brown’s story, checking back with her book, rereading passages, looking up when I hear the crack of the back, the roar of the crowd. Must be all those years vending beer at Wrigley, working with the game right at my back. Reading Danit Brown and selling beer at Wrigley Field—I’m sure that’s a comparison this author’s never seen before.