Hello there, Story366! Today is Thursday and I can’t really think of any great anecdotes from the day, nor can I think of anything topical I want to bring up right now. I had a big administrative meeting this morning for the college, and in that meeting …
… okay, just kidding. I’m not going to give you the itinerary of an academic welcome-back meeting. I actually hope that the part of my Story366 essays where I lead up to the story discussion is interesting and pulls readers further into the post, makes them want to read the whole thing. I can’t think of anything that would make me stop reading something than hearing about someone’s work meeting. I didn’t even tell Karen about it for more than a minute, lest she fall asleep, leave me, or walk in front of a speeding semi. And she’s my wife—none of you have pledged yourself to such discussions as she has, willingly. Onward, then.
Today I read from Robert Hellenga‘s new story collection, The Truth About Death and Other Stories, out this year from Bloomsbury. I’d seen this collection at the local Barnes & Noble starting at the beginning of summer, and after a few trips, it wore me down and I picked it up. I’d never read anything by Hellenga before—he’s the author of six novels—so I was eager to see what this longtime pro did with a story. I read a couple of his pieces—they’re all pretty long, in general—though I didn’t hit the title piece, “The Truth About Death,” as it’s a 143-page novella and that just wasn’t going to happen today, my semester about to begin and a million things to do. Still, I think I got a good sampling of Hellenga’s voice and skill set and will write about “Snapshots of Aphrodite.”
When I was in high school, one of my English teachers told us that the best way to start any sort of paper or essay or English assignment was to invoke a muse, as in one of the nine greek muses from mythology. So, that year, everybody in my honors English class started every assignment with an epigraph to Calliope or Clio or whomever, asking for the strength to write solidly, to earn an A, to brownnose this particular teacher. “Snapshots of Aphrodite” reminds me of that class, that muse-invoking advice, as Hellenga starts the story, and ends it, with language and style reminiscent of Greek drama. The characters aren’t characters, but titans, grand figures worthy of song and poem. The first paragraph is a description of a woman, Rosalind, comparing her to a rose, a garden of roses on fire, then eventually to Aphrodite herself. The story’s protagonist, DiVita, is walking Rosalind through the lobby of a cheap Chicago hotel, basking in the moment, as all eyes are on her, everyone aware that he’s with her and what they’re going upstairs to a room to do. So, the story establishes some important facts (themes, even) right away: DiVita is a horny guy, he’s having an affair with a gorgeous woman, and it’s important to him that everyone knows it. In fact, that last part is the most important part.
Soon we discover more about DiVita and Rosalind, that Rosalind is the wife of Graham, DiVita’s friend, colleague, and boss, the head of his department where DiVita is a junior faculty member up for tenure. DiVita is well aware of how messed up this is, but it’s not in his character to care: He’s more worried about being seen with Rosalind, and having wild, dangerous hotel sex with her, than he is in being a decent guy. To say DiVita is an anti-hero would be an understatement.
DiVita’s arrogance bites him in this ass and soon. As he’s upstairs with Rosalind, him spread-eagle and tied to the four-poster bed with nylons, Rosalind riding him like a racehorse, their hotel room door opens, the chain is cut, and a camera peeks in, shoots a whole roll of the couple in the act. And that’s it: They’re caught. Was it Graham? Was it someone else? Was it a mistake? The couple finishes their session, leaving DiVita understandably worried that his friend and superior has just found out, setting up the main tension of the story.
Hellenga dives right into that conflict, as DiVita and Graham are to escort their college’s dean and his wife to the university yacht, parked in a harbor, for a little weekend soiree, where DiVita will find out about his tenure. DiVita gets in a dinghy with the dean and his wife to row to the yacht, but then Graham pulls up and DiVita knows he knows: Graham is flushed, angry, and determined, staring him down. Graham then starts pumping up an inflatable canoe to take to the yacht and insists on DiVita helping him and riding with him out to the boat. DiVita obliges, trying to determine what Graham really knows—he’s foolishly optimistic—trying to diffuse any possible problem. Did I mention that DiVita can’t swim? He unfortunately mentions this to Graham, and the two set out into a Lake Michigan harbor, an envelope of photos apparently in Graham’s jacket, DiVita’s life in his hands.
I won’t go any further into plot, as this canoe scene launches the climax of the story. I’ll say again that the piece ends with a rather Classical tone, DiVita invoking the gods in the end, raising this rather ribald story—a guy was fucking his friend’s wife and got caught—to the levels of tales of the ages.
In addition to all this, the story also seems to be set in another era, a long-gone time when professors wore yachting outfits to meet up on yachts, when tenure was determined more by hobnobbing than merit, and when women—Rosalind is half Graham’s age and one of his former graduate students—were objects for these men to conquer, to speak of as objects. Rosalind barely has dialogue; she is a body, a heavenly one, and nothing more. Way back in the beginning of the story, a bartender asks DiVita, “What does she put on her cunt?” as in perfume, an odd, crass line—really, I don’t even get the question—but one that sets a certain tone; Hellenga is establishing what kind of world he’s writing about, what kind of people we’re dealing with. These aren’t nice people, but at least comeuppance comes up.
Should I also mention that there’s New Yorker-type cartoons throughout the book, between the stories, like there is on the cover? Haven’t seen that before.
Robert Hellenga writes really close-knit character studies, in “Snapshots of Aphrodite” and in the other story I read, “The Second Coming,” about a guy who’s getting old, possibly losing his mind. Hellenga has an ear for dialogue, is able to turn a phrase (I love how the bolt cutters that cut the hotel room door chain are compared to the beak of some giant, exotic bird), and can write gritty, difficult stories, ones that don’t necessarily have happy endings. What should I have expected, though, from a book called The Truth About Death?