October 1: “Hope” by Ben Greenman

Good to be here, Story366! Writing at you during a gorgeous Saturday afternoon in Springfield, an afternoon that has slipped into evening and into night as I listen to the Cubs, read from my book, and see how long I can go without moving from the couch. Yesterday, I’d made clear how busy the last week was, so I owed the couch some time, wanted to get reacquainted. Mission accomplished. We’re good now, couch and I. As solid as we’ve ever been.

That doesn’t mean I’ve been here all day. My Saturday started with an alarm clock at 7:30, necessary because of my son’s popcorn walk. What’s a popcorn walk and why does it make me set an alarm on a Saturday? A popcorn walk is a fundraiser for my son’s Cub Scout den, one that has the boys walking up and down our neighborhood streets, knocking on doors, and practicing their politeness skills.  This is my son’s fifth year on the job, and since he began, he and his cohorts have lost a bit of their pathetic cuteness, the first graders (the Tigers, if you’re keeping track) almost always selling the most at this event. My son’s group, the Webelos, at least can handle things on their own—all I have to do is trail behind on the sidewalk, make sure none of them gets grabbed, dragged inside a house. Mission accomplished there, plus we sold some super-expensive fundraiser popcorn. An interesting morning, plus I more than earned my reunion with couch.

Luckily, a couch is practically the best place to read short stories, so I read a few from Ben Greenman’s collection What He’s Poised to Do, out from Harper Perennial. I’ve not read much Greenman before, which is surprising, as he’s the author of several books, writes for The New Yorker, and has been in several lit mags. Still, I went into What He’s Poised to Do without any preconceptions.

And like most of the times I say that, I was treated to a satisfying introduction into Greenman. I also found out, as soon as I opened to the table of contents, that Greenman has a theme running throughout this book. Firstly all of the stories in the table of contents have subtitles (or whatever italicized notes in parentheses are), a city and a year. When I ventured inside the book, the city and year seemed to be the place and time in which the story is set, so nothing too shocking there. However, those subtitles on the stories’ title pages come in the form of a post office stamp cancellation, the city name and year in a circle, surrounded by wavy lines. Once I started reading the stories, the cancellations made sense, as all of the stories involve letter-writing of some kind, whether the letters are sent or kept in a drawer, whether they letter-writing is described by the narrator or if the story is a straight-up epistolary. So, a collection of stories about people writing letters, in cities all around the world, ranging from the nineteenth through the twenty-first centuries.

Okay, a neat concept, one I’ve not quite seen before. I finally read the first two stories, starting with the title story, a piece about a philandering husband who exchanges postcards with the hotel employee with whom he’s having an affair. I also skipped ahead to a story set in Chicago, a location that’s more arbitrary, as it’s a more conceptual piece, about a man who writes letters not to the woman who dumped him, but to the Dear John letter she left for him (it’s complicated, but it makes sense). The story I’m going to write about, though, “Hope,” is the second story in the book and is my favorite, employing the letter concept in the most creative way.

The subtitle of “Hope” is Havana 1940 and is about Tomas Tinta, a man who writes over two thousand letters to a woman named Yamila Rodriguez. Tomas falls in love with Yamila at first sight, an experience he records in an early letter (the letters are quoted a lot in this story), and asks her out to dinner. Sadly, though, Yamila disappears soon after—from her home, the town, from Tomas’ life—and Tomas never sees her again. Yet, Tomas continues to write the letters, even after he is forced to leave Cuba and settles in Miami.

“Hope” spans many years, a couple of decades, and for the most part, describes Tomas’ love life after Yamila, after coming to America, a catalogue of his romantic encounters. He meets a woman named Eileen and marries her and has a daughter, but that she eventually leaves him for another man and Tomas barely sees her or his daughter again. After that, he takes up with a much younger woman and lives with her for a while, but that relationship also sours. There are more women, followed by more unhappy endings. The key thing to remember, though, is that this whole time, Tomas is writing letters to Yamila, letters he can’t mail. That’s the weird, messed-up part of this, what makes the story so interesting. Do the letters contribute to the end of these relationships? It’s hard to tell, as Greenman never tells us if the other women know about the letters. Do these letters, the time it takes to write them, contribute to Tomas’ often failing careers, sending him into worse jobs and various states of poverty? Again, Greenman doesn’t tell us, but as a daily blogger who writes something every day, no matter what else he could or should be doing, I can’t help but think they are at least a little bit distracting.

I’ll stop there in terms of plot revelations, but Greenman writes a really touching story about a romantic, a guy whose primary objective in his life is to love. He loves Yamila after one chance meeting. He loves Eileen, despite already loving Yamila. He loves all his women. Does it ever cross over into obsession? Without a doubt—no matter who beautiful the letters are and how much Tomas truly loves Yamila, in his heart of hearts, he’s kind of a stalker, when you think about it. But since this is a story and Greenman writes like a poet and the circumstances are what they are, I still think it’s romantic, a lovely story about enduring affection.

I also like the way the story’s told, from a really distant third-person narrator, one who seems to be chronicling the life of Tomas Tinta, his exploits. It’s as if this narrator is narrating a biography of Tomas, knowing about all the letters—aside from Tomas, he’s the only one—as if Tomas at one point became famous and his life story needed to be told. The effect of this is a near-omniscient feel, a voice I don’t read a lot in stories (and I read a lot of stories).

Basically, I’m Ben Greenman’s newest fan, as I really like the stories I read in What He’s Poised to Do, liked them a lot. As someone who’s written a couple of concept-based collections, I also admire the long-range thinking that went into creating this project, the foresight to start something like this and see it through. All in all, this book is standing out as one of the highlights so far, a book I really connected with on a lot of levels.