August 06, 2009
Every time I open a new book of fiction, there’s a part of me that hopes for the improbable: to encounter something new, something utterly original. So as you can imagine, I’m let down a lot. But sometimes I get lucky.
It’s been two weeks since I finished reading J. Robert Lennon’s Pieces for the Left Hand, but here’s this little gem of a book, still sitting on my desk. I don’t know when I’ll return this paperback to its designated shelf, but it won’t be anytime soon, for I keep going back to it, reading one of the 100 anecdotes in this collection at random, smiling and chuckling along the way.
The book is organized into seven sections:
- Town and Country
- Mystery and Confusion
- Lies and Blame
- Work and Money
- Parents and Children
- Artists and Professors
- Doom and Madness
You could call these flash fiction stories, but somehow that label diminishes what Lennon is trying to do here. Because when you put the pieces together, the sum of the parts becomes enormously larger than the whole. Every story is narrated by the same character, who is “forty-seven years old” and “lives in a renovated farmhouse” in upstate New York, which lends a sense of continuity to the book. But it is the easy, conversational tone of this narrator that makes Pieces so charming. I read the entire book in one sitting, and I kept waiting for that moment when I’d grow sick of this character, but it never happened. If anything, I just wanted him to keep going.
Sometimes the stories are simple. One of my favorites is called “Twilight,” and like many of the other anecdotes in the book, this one takes place in an everyday, ordinary place, the town coffee shop, where the narrator worked in his youth. Foreign tourists walk in, and one of them asks “in hesitant English: Where was twilight?” The narrator goes to great lengths to describe the gorgeous twilight off the pier, talking elaborately of colors and the air and the reflections and whatnot.
They listened politely to my description, then a man stepped forward and, in more convincing English than his companion, explained that his friend was looking for the toilet. Embarrassed, I pointed the way.
Cute, right? If the story had ended here, it would’ve been fine. The setup, the punchline, bada bing, bada boom. But what makes Pieces some of the most unlaziest writing I’ve seen in some time is the coda that Lennon offers.
Later that evening, when my shift was over, I walked home along the lake and saw them out on the pier, watching the sun set. I stood watching them watch until it was dark.
With this last paragraph, Lennon finds a quiet beauty beyond the joke; the last line is especially haunting. He does this many times over in this book, each one distinctly precious in its own way.
If all of the stories were constructed like this, I might have tired of this collection quickly, but that’s not the case at all. Many are fully realized short stories, and by that I mean they have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but they have been squeezed and shrunken down to their essential parts. The characters may not have names, and we may not get any dialogue, but it’s all remarkably there. In “The Bureau,” a man finds his birth announcement in the drawer of a bureau, and it results in an affair, two broken marriages, and ultimately, a sad domesticity, all delivered in a neat page and a half.
Furthermore, another batch of stories center around insightful dissections of human behavior, and they make up some of the funniest bits in this book. In “Encounter,” the narrator is walking alone at night in a city and sees a black man approach him, and as we glimpse his many thoughts, we experience the painfully hilarious foibles of race and political correctness in America. It’s just pure comic genius.
Critics have cited the works of Jorge Luis Borges and Paul Auster as comparables for Pieces, but the one that I was reminded of was Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. In that novel, there are many places where Vonnegut describes the plots of Kilgore Trout’s books in condensed form. I remember wishing those invisible novels in Breakfast were actual works I could read, and one could argue that Lennon might have written a more substantial work had he fleshed out these pieces into short stories or perhaps a novel.
Thank goodness he didn’t. These anecdotes are perfect just the way they are.
Pieces for the Left Hand: Stories
By J. Robert Lennon
Graywolf Press, 224pp (March 31, 2009)