Have I mentioned the dinner party story yet? Sure I did, back on January 5, when I reviewed “Bobcat” by Rebecca Lee. Today, over three months later, I have another one, “A Matter of Time” by Kate Milliken from her excellent collection If I’d Known You Were Coming, winner of one of those John Simmons Short Fiction Awards from the University of Iowa Press. I know that I’ve only covered two this year so far—remember, I’m only reading a few stories from each book—but I still think the dinner party story is a genre. I’m not sure what the origins of this set-up are, but one of the great Modern novels, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, is the first I can think of. Wait, does Thom Jones count? It probably does, Oedipal distractions and all.
The point is, a dinner party is a neat setup for a story, almost an easy one. You have the host—usually the protagonist—trying to get everything ready, and either succeeding or failing to some degree: automatic conflict, tension, and, depending on the purpose of the dinner party, stakes. Then you have the eclectic and odd guest list, giving the writer a chance create some great secondary figures to season the mix. Of course, there’s the central conflict, usually caused by a guest of honor, the reason for the party, the biggest stressor, and often, the antagonist.
“A Matter of Time” fits this bill in all ways and Milliken has a lot of fun with the premise, with the set-up. The story is about Lorrie, and her husband Marty, ready to host a dinner party their old college chum, Nick Regan, who in the nine years since they’ve graduated, has produced and directed nine Hollywood feature films, each with a budget doubling its predecessor. It doesn’t seem like the couple and Nick have kept in touch—it’s revealed later that neither party knows each other’s kids, that they even have kids—but he has agreed to come over (after canceling twice already). Part of Lorrie wants Nick to cancel again—their house is in disrepair, she’s having trouble getting ready, etc., all the basic worries people have when hosting such an event.
Of course, this party isn’t just about reconnecting with old friends. Marty is an actor, a starving one, and from some minute details we get early on, this family really needs a break. The hope is, have Nick over, pump him with a few drinks, ask, at the right time and in the right way, if there’s a small part for Marty in his next film. That’s the really hitch, though, isn’t it? Figuring out the best way, the best time, not letting this connection, this in, go to waste.
Nick, as it turns out, arrives to tell Lorrie he can’t stay. Lorrie panics, Marty’s still getting ready, and the rest of the guests start arriving. Like with most dinner party stories, alcohol fuels the events, and before we know it, everyone’s lost focus on what they’re doing. This is good in one way, as Nick has decided to stay for dinner, giving Marty more opportunity. It’s also bad, however, in a way that I won’t go into here—that would reveal too much, so you’ll have to read the story to find out what happens, how things go awry (of course they go awry).
I can think of some other dinner party stories, such as Julie Orringer’s “Pilgrims,” Robert Coover’s “The Babysitter,” and just about every story (it seemed, when I read it twenty years ago) in Michael Chabon’s A Model World. I don’t think it’s as popular a type of story as, say, a good brother-bad brother story (James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues), or a stranger-comes-to-town story (Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”), but I always enjoy seeing what a writer does with it. Kate Milliken delivers a good one in “A Matter of Time,” just one of three really great stories I read from her award-winning book If I’d Know You Were Coming. Iowa always puts out solid books, though, so this is no real surprise.