Happy Friday, Story366! I’m still here in Fayetteville, the last full day of my writing retreat, and things have been going swimmingly. Last night I got to meet yesterday’s author, Jon Trobaugh, for drinks. We met up at the Fayetteville town square, more or less alone in the bar from 9 until 11. Like most college towns, students don’t really go out until 11, and sure enough, the bar was quickly packed before we knew what was going on. Since we got there at 9, a DJ was on a stage, playing ambient noise, bobbing his head for two hours to what seemed like Philip Glass on meth. It didn’t make much sense, this lonely figure entertaining himself, but by 11:15, a dozen scantily clad coeds were twerking away—perhaps my first live witnessing of twerking—really seeming to have a good time. Young people having a good time is my signal to bug out, so I wished Jon a good evening and headed back to my hotel.
Today’s author is Edith Pearlman. In the 2000s, Pearlman seemingly won every short story collection contest there was, inconveniently for me, as I was entering contests with a very early version of Elephants in Our Bedroom (at that time [unfortunately] titled B positive and Other Pieces of Unsolicited Advice). Okay, maybe Pearlman didn’t win every contest, but within a span of a few years, she won three of them: the Drue Heinz Literature Prize for Vaquita and Other Stories; the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction for Love Among the Greats; and the Mary McCarthy Prize for today’s book, How to Fall: Stories, sponsored by Sarabande. By no means am I saying that I should have won any of these prizes over Pearlman—that version of Elephants was “rough,” to be kind to myself—or that someone else should have won them, either. She won fair and square, and by that I mean she entered a fantastic book and the judges picked it. What’s amazing about this feat is that Pearlman had three unpublished collections at one time, all of them good enough to win book prizes, judged by three completely different sets of adjudicators. Think about that, how much luck goes into winning a contest on top of the obvious talent that’s needed. The right people have to react to the right type of story, the right images, the right sentences, have to be in a particular mood to become engaged, entralled. Remember, too, when judges judge these contests, they often read several manuscripts at once. We at Moon City Press are in the final stages of picking our 2016 fiction winner and it’s incredibly difficult, so many good books to choose from. We’ve done it twice before (picking Cate McGowan’s True Places Never Are and Laura Hendrix Ezell’s A Record of Our Debts), but so many worthy writers entered and made the decisions difficult. Cate and Laura are rock stars and I love them both, but there’s some luck and circumstance involved, too; mainly, both just happened to write the type of story that I and the other judges happen to admire. For Pearlman to have that happen to her three times in such a short span is simply amazing, revealing the immense amount of talent she possesses.
And that’s evident in How To Fall, for sure. I read several stories from this collection, including the lead and title story, “How to Fall,” and will write on that story today. It’s the story of Jocelyn “Joss” Hoyle, a former New York theater actor who takes a job as the mute sidekick to Happy Bloom on The Happy Bloom Hour, a post-WWII variety show. Joss is a sensible guy, understanding that what he and Happy do is utter nonsense, but that American TV watchers love it; Happy has recently appeared on the cover of Time, between weeks that featured Stalin and Churchill. Bloom tells jokes, sings, and dances, while Joss, more or less, is there for silent comic relief—I’m picturing a black and white, less murderous Sideshow Bob. Joss longs to return to theater, but Happy needs him, he knows, and the TV gig is steadier and pays a lot more than Broadway, off Broadway, rep, or anything else Joss might score at his advanced age. He endures the embarrassment, too old to argue with steady work.
Joss starts receiving fan mail from a particularly interesting source, the Lady in Green, who sends Joss a letter quite often. This is unusual, as Happy is the star, not him. There’s something about these letters that distracts Joss, makes him think about their author quite often; there’s more to the Lady in Green than simple flattery. The letters, intelligent, insightful, and ego-boosting, are one highlight in Joss’ otherwise miserable existence. His one child, a daughter, suffers from severe mental impairments; his wife, Mary, is an alcoholic, and the two visit their daughter once a week in a special-care facility, more challenging and heart-breaking every single time. Joss’ existence is more or less in a loop. His home life is tragic while his professional life is stable, bordering on humiliating. When a letter comes from the Lady in Green revealing a time and day and location to meet, Joss is intrigued. Without hesitating, he informs Happy he has to take an afternoon off, which isn’t easy, but the mystery of the Lady in Green awaits.
I won’t reveal any more about the plot, what happens when Joss arrives at this meeting time and place, as that would be giving away too much. I’ll say that Pearlman writes a tale of middle age angst, regret, and tragedy, creating a completely original set of characters and setting. How many stories have you read that involve early TV variety show clowns? I haven’t read any. The fact that the story isn’t a lark, isn’t absurd, is another accomplishment altogether. Pearlman certainly has fun here—it’s an enjoyable story—but very little attention is paid to the machinations of the show, of Happy and Joss’ screwball antics. It’s more a behind-the-scenes exposé, one that stabs at the heart of its well defined characters. It’s a really fine story, in a book of really fine stories.
Since publishing those three contest winners early last decade, Edith Pearlman has published two more collections, Binocular Vision, a new and selected (which is super-impressive, as those are hard to get publishers to put out), and last year’s Honeydew, made up of completely new work. Ten years ago, Edith Pearlman snuck up on the world by putting out three books in quick succession. At this point, she’s not sneaking up on anyone, but has cemented herself as one of our great story writers, a true master of the craft.