Before we start, you should Â to know that I can get rather Glenn Beck-ish about genre. Start talking about rounding corners in a memoir, and I’ll get all kinds of slippery-slope on you (complete with finger jabs in the air). While I enjoy stretching in the gray areas of life, I have no tolerance for it when dividing literature. I want boundaries, damn it. Secure ones. And yet, Dan Gutstein’s Non/Fiction (Edge, 2010) leaves me all free-to-be-you-and-me, all let’s-tear-down-the-wall. (It apparently also leaves me mixing metaphors.)
Gutstein’s premier collection includes 38 short/shorts–that weird space between poetry and prose–divided into two sections, with 24 of the pieces previously published. (Gutstein is one of those power literary journal publishing types — he’s been in over 60.) Through the quickly-read 140 pages, we learn about Denny Davidson, the kind of guy who still holds sway as the all-American-male type. The book opens with a piece that sets the reader up for his brother David’s death by cancer. He dies in these opening pages, leaving us to find out about him later in a three-part sequence midway through the book.
Alan Shapiro’s blurb claims the book’s Â ”mongrel nature”Â, and the growl of mongrel fits; while there are dark-funny and light-funny moments, much of the book seems on the brink of destruction, be it for David or for Denny’s murdered friend, for a Rust Belt cafeteria or for Denny himself. Everything, it seems, could end right now — if right now comes at the end of lingering pain. “Our pumping hearts, I’ve said, are what make us equal,”Â the opening story concludes, “and later, when I press that part of my chest to hers, we will share in the code that is both the rhythm of our vitality and a prophecy of our deaths–”Â
Short sequences include a trip to Jerusalem and the inner life of Sholl’s Cafeteria, a meatloaf-and-corn-bread type of place. ‘Mrs. Perlmutter Returns to Sholl’s Cafeteria’ speaks to a time and a place that always seems to be on the shortlist for extinction. Mrs. Perlmutter is “all New York, Bronx, like everybody’s fathers,”Â but she has that small-town power attained by people of a certain age. (Admittedly this power is one of my life’s goals, endearing these pieces to me all the more.)
The last third of the book is inexplicably broken off from the rest. Here is Denny’s childhood with a more consistent and concrete set of characters and circumstances. It doesn’t seem so terribly off that it couldn’t be fully incorporated with the rest of the collection. Maybe because it’s the end of the book–or maybe because it brushes against that kind of Stand By Me nostalgia that gets me every time–these are the pieces that stay with me. Denny and his friend Kev go through the early puberty rituals of nabbing porn, kissing girls in the slapdash way of adolescence, and terrorizing their French teacher’s pet rock. (What, you never did that?) There are also painful moments — listening to Kev’s drunk mother say “This little shit is no son of mine”Â through a locked door before she proceeds to have bathtub sex with her boyfriend while twelve-year-old Kev balls up on his bed and sucks his thumb.
The book ends at the beginning with ‘First Memory.’ Though it addresses death–this time of Denny’s grandmother–it also includes those tender moments where we always feel safe. “So, too, has my memory dulled,”Â the narrator says, “though in it, my father always opens his hand, a hand I always reach for, and take.”Â Lines like that are the true glory of this book. It’s so easy to fly through a book like this–short/shorts and white space will do that–but it’s just as easy to amble through. The almost-poetry combined with almost-prose leaves room for language and images: “I am the brother of a man who, after a moment, needs his brother,”Â reads a mid-book piece. “I go to him and for the first time, we embrace. Two men in a grasp so sound, it’s astonishing.”Â
The narrator is all grasp, and so we go with him, erasing genre lines as we go. That’s how it feels to read Non/fiction.
Amy Whipple blogs at amywhipple.com