'You're So Beautiful' & 'Normal'

Middle-class America can be a peculiar place. Beyond the monotony of split-level homes and overpasses, of cheerleading practice and the Baby Gap, many Americans struggle, for the most part silently, with the tenuousness of their lives.

Reading the stories in these two first collections is like taking a series of detours on a trip across the landscape of American anxiety. The liveliest stories in You’re So Beautiful and Normal capture a frantic energy and trace a shaky path over the day-to-day lives of people blessed with plenty of comforts, but little security. Most of Eileen FitzGerald’s and Lucia Nevai’s characters are fueled by a quirky sense of their own precariousness. These are people who are seemingly held hostage to their vulnerabilities (and very real fears), and almost literally held captive in shopping malls, grocery store checkout lines, wedding receptions, their own homes, and even the Holland Tunnel.

The mildness and humor of family life-moments of predictability, restlessness, and doubt among siblings, parents and their children, couples, and neighbors-infuse many of the stories. Some of these families have managed to stay intact and are battling a nagging uneasiness; others, disconnected, are still shocked by loss, looking to control or repair what’s left. In “Chicken Train,” one of FitzGerald’s lighter pieces, a ripening peach becomes a lifeline to youth for a forty-one-year-old husband and father as he reflects on impending middle age before an annual neighborhood barbecue. Nevai’s “Monsieur Allé” places us with a permissive Upper West Side couple who, after a fracas involving floury chicken parts, anxiously await a visit from a child-abuse investigator. All these parents contend with lukewarm marriages, willful teen-agers, and slack households; this mix of uncertainty and good fortune captures both the self-indulgent and endearing sides of family life.

A pervasive anxiety is palpable even among the youngest. Five-year-old Jill, the adhesive holding together a failing marriage in Nevai’s “Thanksgiving with Dorrie & Heck,” belts out a campy rendition of a Southern ditty to salvage her family’s performance (and, perhaps, her parents’ marriage) in a talent show. And in FitzGerald’s “Zoo Bus,” persnickety Elise, an eighty-year-old mother who at once craves and distrusts her daughter’s attention, takes a taxi downtown clutching an unopened can of blueberries, desperate to make peace with her daughter.Then there’s Gus Angellini, one of Nevai’s more vital creations, a coarse and not altogether likable New Jersey man who panics whenever he approaches the Holland Tunnel on his commute into New York City:

I put my head between my legs, close my eyes, hold tight to my Saint Christopher medal. Over and over, I’m saying, Just get me over, Saint Christopher. The bus is going downhill, down, down, and when the sound changes, no traffic noise, just wheels, I know we’re in the tunnel. The smell of exhaust is seeping in underneath somewhere. The bum in back is smoking a cigarette. Green death is closing in around me. This is it, I’m thinking, this is the end. Just get me over, I’m praying, I probably say it two thousand times.-
As Gus’s travail suggests, there is a dark and disturbing side to our everyday preoccupations. Both collections present those moments in some fine, haunting stories. The jolts and trepidations of adolescent life are well canvassed. FitzGerald, for example, takes on incest in her collection’s poignant title story, where Sydney, left alone by her parents for two months, gets through high school biology and drill-team practice, and gets away from the lecherous attention of a divorced, middle-aged man, only to return home terrified that her college-aged brother will visit on weekends and molest her while she’s sleeping.

FitzGerald’s reverence for some of her characters limits her weaker stories, and she neglects too much of life’s simple absurdity and spectacle. She is at her best within the tormented yet mundane world of suburban teen-agers; her loping prose expertly tracks the myriad fears and anguish of adolescence. In “Missy,” pink-smocked teen-agers work halfheartedly at a shopping center candy store (formerly the automotive department of Sears). Overwhelmed by the complexities of youth, the story’s principal character gorges herself with sweets, stuffs herself with cookies in the park, and lugs home pillowcases filled with chocolates for family and friends.

Nevai writes more from the inside of her characters’ psyches, but covers ground similar to FitzGerald’s. In “Belief,” a desperate young girl, abandoned at a Methodist camp by her parents, repeatedly slashes herself with a Swiss Army knife in an attempt to find control in her life. In “Release,” an even more effective story, an angry and rebellious young woman, a persistent runaway, is reunited with her bewildered parents in a psychiatric ward. Not surprisingly, these fragile teen-agers are among the most disturbing and combustible of all these characters.

However, most of the characters in both of these collections would be happy, I think, simply to find a way to get beyond the wounds of infidelity, loneliness, and estrangement. With honesty and a little abandon, a few do, and take the edge off their anger, disappointment, and regret. In doing so, and much to our delight, they find room in their lives for things that have been lost or misplaced. Other stories in these two collections can be too scant. Some are plain puzzling. And at times many of the characters conjured up by these two writers seem silly or simply maddening, plagued and inevitably betrayed by their own doubts. Still, both Nevai and FitzGerald more often treat these fictional lives with patience, good will, and compassion, so that, in the best stories here, we want to as well.

Published in the 1997-09-12 issue: 

Jacqueline Dowdell, formerly Commonweal’s production editor, is a graduate student in the English department at Cornell University.

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