Say hey, Story366! Last night, I wrote a really long pre-story intro leading into my breakdown of Elizabeth McCracken’s story. Tonight, I could go into a variety of topics—the Cubs’ acquisition of Aroldis Chapman comes to mind—but I think I’d like to get right to the story tonight, relate it to myself a bit after, as that’s what I’m feeling tonight in Story366 land.
Paul Maliszewski’s Prayer and Parable, from Fence Books, is a collection of stories that alternates between prayers and parables, presenting about a dozen of each. These pieces, despite have the monikers of “prayer” and “parable,” are, however, straight-up short stories. They don’t use archaic diction like Thou shalt not or anything like that, invoking some Latin chant as they move along, nor do they use line breaks or rhyme. From what I’ve read of Maliszewski’s work, both here in this book and in lit journals over the years, he employs a very particular style. The characters in these stories don’t have names, while the settings, for the most part, are people’s homes, their workplaces, all of them as nameless, presented without specificity or detail. There are no car chases or explosions, no clocks to keep the stories moving, no world-shifting events. Maliszewski focuses his stories on small moments, crucial in the long run, crucial to the philosophies of his characters, but small in scope, in movement, in physical action. The characters are often couples working through particular issues, and as so many of the stories focus on these nameless couples, they very well might be the same couple. Better yet, every couple. That’s what Maliszewski seems to be going for, the seemingly little moments that affect us all, that we all face, the ones that determine who we are.
I’d read a bunch of Maliszewski’s prayers before and published a couple in Mid-American Review, one of which made the cut here (Maliszewski wrote and published a ton of these in lit mags and simply didn’t have room for all of them in a collection). Somehow, I’d never read any of the parables before, so today I’ll focus on the first in the book, “Parable of the Fever.”
“Parable of the Fever” features this guy whose live-in girlfriend has tremendously awful fever, one that won’t go away. They try everything they can, seek advice from everyone they know, using both sound medical advice and the most far-fetched home remedies, none of which make the fever break. The first third of the story is taken up by these attempts, which allows Maliszewski to do some listing, to flex some creative skills.
The story then shifts to the guy’s ego, which is what the story’s really about. The plot concerns the fever, yeah, but this is about this guy, a man who is trying to be the good guy, trying to be the guy who solves the problem. He wants his girlfriend’s fever to go away—of course he does—but even more so, he wants what he’s doing to work, for it to be him who does it, for this problem to go away. The fever becomes emblematic, almost, of his potency as the traditional man in the relationship, and when he fails, his failure consumes him. Yeah, it’s disturbing when a fever won’t go down—his girlfriend could have stroke, experience brain damage, etc.—but its about him, what he’s able to do and not able to do.
The story ends with a trip to the grocery store where the guy has a confrontation with a third party. I’ll not go any further, but in a book of quiet, simple stories, this is an interesting and fitting way to end. It’s just what someone would do in a situation like this, try to pick something up when he’s out of it, let his stress from his home life affect his mood and behavior. Again, this is what Maliszewski’s stories achieve, take the paths of the everyday to make their points. I think this story, and all of them that I’ve read, are insightful, powerful, real strokes of mastery.
I chose “Parable of the Fever” to write on tonight because I can relate. Where the protagonist of this story finds himself—wanting to be the functional, successful partner—is a place I’ve been before. I think most people find themselves there, not only wanting to solve the problem, but wanting to be the one who solves it, or even more so, not be the one who failed at solving it. I’ve been a husband and father for nearly ten years and try to do my best every day, but sometimes, I fail. What hurts is not only the failing, but the knowledge of the failing, the recognition of it. So I relate here, and I’m sure when I read every story in Prayer and Parable, I’ll identify myself in quite a few of these. That’s where Paul Maliszewski really succeeds. I’m never going to be shot by the Misfit on the back roads of Tennessee or watch my heroin-addicted brother play the blues at some night club; I won’t try to talk my lover into an abortion at the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro, nor will I … you get the picture. But I have lived a lot of these stories, which is why I love this book, this project, so much.