June 17, 2016: “Half as Happy” by Gregory Spatz

Hey there, Story366! Glad to be blogging at you today. You know what I never do? Talk about the book covers, you know, the covers of the books I read from every day. I think most book covers are generally nice looking, like 80 percent of them, falling in what I’ll call “the middle,” book covers that fit the book, fit the style or theme or motif the author is going for. They are designed by graphic designers, look professional and respectable, and of course, in some way, draw the eye to them; this is what I’ve heard most designers speak of as the most important element of the cover, as if people are drawn to a cover, they might by the book, regardless of what’s inside. The author is usually happy with it, or at the very least, they’ve settled on it after some back-and-forth with the publisher, losing out to a press that granted no final say to the author in the contract.

That’s the 80 percent in the middle. That leaves 20 percent, and I think there’s 10 percent on each side of that, 10 percent of covers that are just awful and 10 percent that are fantastic, as good as or even better than the book that brandishes them. Those bottom 10 percent, the truly ugly covers that should not have made it through so many people’s common sense, are a real tragedy. Sometimes the art is bad. Sometimes the art is distasteful. Sometimes the design is wrong. Once in a while, the cover is so far off from what the author was going for, you wonder if perhaps they put the wrong cover on the book. My friend Jean Thompson once told me that for her collection Throw Like a Girl, the original design of the book was an out-of-focus photo of a demure woman, leaning against a doorjamb, in a sexy nightie, appearing suggestive. Jean indeed wrote her editor back and asked if they sent the wrong cover. When the editor said no, she asked where in her book of stories that this image appeared, what this image had to do with her book, if the designer had even bothered to read her book. They gave her a different cover (an old-timey baseball glove with a dirty baseball in the webbing), but her editor noted how the scantily dressed doorway woman had sex appeal, was mysterious, and that would sell books. I’m not sure how Jean answered that, but I’m sure it was an earful of something.

The cover to Gregory Spatz’s collection Half as Happy falls into the top 10 percent for me, the type of cover that seems like it was destined to be on this particular book. As you can see at the end of the post, it’s a photo of a couple, probably from the forties or fifties, frolicking in a pool, happily interacting. The woman is attractive, posing on the diving board, while the man is beneath her, in the pool, apparently inviting her in, maybe just reaching up for some affection. I realize that I just used the word “frolicking,” which I don’t use often, but it actually fits here, as that’s what these people are doing: having fun, being whimsical, with just the slightest suggestion of sex. It’s a solid photo.

More than the photo itself, it really fits the title story, “Half as Happy,” the subject of today’s post. This story is about Stan, a forty-something guy who starts the story as the happiest man on Earth. Spatz starts this piece off by depicting this perfection, detailing Stan’s routine with his seemingly perfect wife, Heidi. Every day, Stan comes home from work, eats the same healthy sandwich, has the same kind of craft beer, and sits on his back deck and watches a nude Heidi swim laps in the pool. At 12:45, Stan holds a towel up to the ladder so Heidi knows it’s time to get out, then she gets out and he dries her off. Some days, they have sex right there, Stan dropping his pants, keeping his shirt and tie on, but other days, they wait until nighttime—all in all, they have sex two to three times a week, and for a couple in their forties, married eighteen years, they should get a medal.

Okay, so neat scenario, but of course, this is a short story, and once Spatz creates this ideality, he gets to conflict it all to heck. Things start to fall apart for the weirdest of reasons. Heidi’s oldest friend, Siam, practically a sister, is in town and staying with the couple. The first day she’s there, when Stan comes home from work, ready to eat his sandwich, drink his beer, and dry off a sopping Heidi, he instead finds Heidi and Siam, lying out on the concrete next to the pool, nude, somewhat entwined. I say “somewhat” because that’s what Stan sees—he stands inside the house, looking out the sliding glass door, and he just doesn’t understand what he’s seeing. Is it two old friends, anxious to get in and out of the pool before he got home, unaware of the time? Are they expecting Stan, not worried about Siam’s nudity, as it’s cool, because it’s just Siam? Or is it something less innocent, either every man’s fantasy, a threesome about to happen, or the opposite, Stan catching his wife cheating on him in their back yard?

The story continues without much immediate confrontation, as Stan finally goes out to greet the two nude women, who were apparently waiting for him to come home—the they-don’t-care-if-Stan-sees-them-naked-beacause-they’re-all-old-friends theory is the correct one. Heck, Stan’s brothers and cousins and their families have come over, and on occasion, there’s been so drinks and some late-night skinny-dipping. So what’s the big deal with Siam? Again, this story starts off by depicting the couple as perfectly happy—which even Siam points out, is a little jealous of—and what Stan is seeing could be every man’s fantasy, could be where Spatz takes the story, Stan pursuing that threesome whether it’s what Heidi’s implying or not.

Spatz is a better writer than that, however, making “Half as Happy” as better story. Sure, Stan could have fallen for Siam, could have suggested the threeway, could have even walked outside, naked, erect, just putting all his chips on the table. That might have been a fine story, but instead, Spatz writes a more complex, original reaction: Stan disintegrates. His routine offset, a weird element added to the mix, he just can’t get over what he saw and his mind goes in a million directions, absolutely none of them involving the three concerned parties having sex with each other at the same time. Stan thinks about the affair between the women, he thinks about Siam’s previous divorces, even considers this all a ploy by Siam to steal him from Heidi. It really bugs Stan while Siam’s visitind and even more after, and as a result, Stan becomes kind of a dick. He critiques Heidi and picks fights, mostly about her recent weight loss—the swimming and some dieting helping her shed sixty pounds. A particularly ugly scene pits Stan as a bully, Stan becoming as cruel as a man can be to his wife. It’s the climax of the story, mostly, though the couple makes up afterwards, which is easily the most crucial scene. I won’t reveal where this story goes, how it resolves, but it takes a great story and makes one that’s truly special.

One thing we find out, or maybe realize, is the real lesson of the story: The ideal life that Stan and Heidi were supposedly living might not have been all that ideal. That picture on the cover of the book? I think it shows Stan’s view of his world at the outset, through rose-colored lenses, impossible happiness, a scene that reveals much more than it appears to. Like I said, it’s the perfect cover for this book, in every way, and I wonder how this photo met this book, or vice versa.

I’ve read Gregory Spatz’s stories for years, in magazines and in anthologies, always admiring his work. He’s a gifted storyteller and I’m so glad to have picked up Half as Happy.