July 7, 2020: “Until We Have Faces” by Michael Nye

Tuesday is upon us, Story366! Do you know where your stories are?

I am glad to see that the Washington NFL club and the Cleveland baseball team are thinking of changing their names. Long overdue. If this is one of the benefits that springs from all the horrible shit that’s happened, then yay.  I went to a high school with a terribly racist mascot—the Rebel—and double-downed and went to Illinois, where they’ve been using their stereotype for over a century. Good riddance to bad ideas, whether they were in support of bad intentions or not

As soon as I heard about all of this, on NPR, I remember thinking, I bet Trump will have something to say about this. Sure enough, today, our president Tweeted in defense of stereotypes as mascots, just because, well, of course he did.

If there’s a conservative, right-wing cause that he can take the side of of, he’s going to do it, no matter how radical, no matter anyone else says, be it in his own party or what. He’s all in on the hate, speaking directly to his base, as that’s his only prayer: His base shows up to vote and nobody else does. I’ve told the Karen this a few times this week, I wouldn’t not blink if he started to openly use the N-word at his rallies. At this point, nothing would surprise me, not that, not him donning a hood and marching with a burning cross. Not doing as he joked about doing: shooting a person on the street in New York and insisting he get away with it. That’s the level I think he’s headed toward, where we’re at in America today

And it’s made me sad.

In much, much better news, today’s book is actually a today’s book, as Until We Have Faces by Michael Nye is out today from Turner Publishing Company. Happy Birth Day, book! I’m not sure what a modest review in Story366 does on the same day The New York Times Book Review does a write-up, but hey, we probably have different audiences. In any case, I’ve known Nye for a while and call him a friend. I also enjoyed his first book of stories, Strategies Against Extinction, and still use his story, “Sparring Vladimir Putin,” in my classes. I was eager to get into this new book, looking forward to it. Let’s go.

“Who Are You Wearing?” is about Justin, an unemployed guy who takes a job at a seasonal Halloween store, wearing costumes out on the sidewalk, barkering people inside—you know, the sign-twirlers. Justin lives with Amy, who’s been supporting him, and that’s working out okay, at best. Neither of them are fooled by the brevity in which this job solves their problems. Turns out, though, that the costumes do more than bring in some dough: Amy is super-turned on by Justin in his costumes, and they have the best sex of their lives while he dons rubber masks, dresses like Snow White, and basically becomes anyone but himself during the deed.

“You Only Better” features Amanda, who’s just started a side business that actually seems like it’s taking off: She offers a two-hour “professional” photography session where she takes a great headshot of someone, mixes them a few drinks, and gets five hundred bucks. Helping is her partner, Aaron, who does the hair and makeup and cheerleading; Amanda takes special note when he calls the business “our business” instead of hers. The business is advertised as a way to get a better social media image, but really, people use it for Tinder, hoping to get a higher grade of laid.

The title story, “Until We Have Faces,” is a long one, over forty pages, and Nye gets everything he can out of those pages. It feels like a small novel—a novella, if you will—as we get as in-depth into the characters’ backstories, psyches, and motivations as any story I’ve read. This is a good story, a proper earner of the title-story moniker.

Ryan’s another unemployed guy without a lot of prospects, who also takes an undesirable job, this time as a property manager for a real estate asshead. To start, Ryan has to get his realtor’s license in a three-week crash course. If he passes, he keeps the job; if he fails, he has to pay the company back for the tuition. That’s what Ryan’s throwing in on, but he’s been out of work for months and doesn’t have a choice. When he doesn’t get his first paycheck, he decides it’s too risky to inquire so he lets it go. That’s how shitty his company is.

Ryan lives with Ali, in her apartment. They’ve been dating a year and they seem to love each other, but they only live together because Ryan would clearly be homeless if she didn’t let him in to bunk. This has only intensified Ryan’s guilt and desperation, but also inspires him. He passes the course, starts working for said asshead. America!

One of Ryan’s jobs is to follow through on foreclosures, to see if he can squeeze the last dimes out of people about to lose their houses. Or he can assess if it’s better to just buy them off the property, to have them leave instead of drag things out by them squatting. Ryan runs into one such former owner, whose argument is that Ryan needs to get off his property because it’s his property. When Ryan shows him the foreclosure notices, the man stops listening and starts threatening. This is the type of dues his boss says he has to pay to really start making money—and not get immediately fired.

Ali’s backstory is pretty much given a story on its own, as we find out her brother died in a car accident a few months before she met Ryan. They owned a comic book store together, ran it for four years together, then Ali did it one more year by herself. Without her brother’s support, and capital, things go south and she had to get out. Ryan even tries to help her, talk her into keeping it going, but she points out that it’s been too much for her, that running a business is a twenty-four-hour job, that she’s just tired of making it work to make it work. She wants out. Is this a metaphor for her relationship with Ryan? Well, of course it is.

Another sidestory depicts Ryan as a fighter, as in a guy who likes to get into fistfights out in public. He and his old football buddy, Andy, go to a bar in one scene, another extended sidebar that makes this story so comprehensive. When Ryan hears some guy use an Asian slur—Ali is Chinese-American, by the way—Ryan hauls off on the guy, inciting a brawl.

Like I said, there are a lot of parts to this story, all of them receiving as much space as Nye sees fit to give them. It makes for a well developed character, an elaborate fictive world, yet a fast read—Nye’s prose is rich and easy, and forty-something pages feel more like four.

I won’t go any further into the plot of this story, as you’ll have to find out Ryan’s fate for your self. I like this story, and I like Until We Have Faces, Michael Nye’s approach to story and the world quite appealing. Today, Nye reminds me that stories are about characters, whether you put them in a rubber zebra mask or dress them up for a photo shoot; if you’re good at all that window dressing, all the better. Nye is a talented, balanced, and explicit storyteller with two superior collections (and a novel) under his belt. Glad that he’s writing in the world where I read.

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