A bowling alley owner agonizes over the disappearance of his newest lane girl while coming to grips with the fact that his daughter paints portraits of penises.
A mother abandons her family, leaving her sad, boozy husband and daughter to cope with getting along in post-World War Two America. Things get really bad one day during a picnic, which culminates in the homicide of a football.
A radio sports announcer with a sleep disorder really starts to crack up as he watches cheerleaders during halftime at a high school basketball game.
Welcome to Mark Winegardner's world, a place simultaneously odd and familiar. In his short story collection, That's True of Everybody, Winegardner holds a funhouse mirror up to society. It's not always pretty, but it's always true.
In That's True of Everybody Winegardner, whose novel Crooked River Burning was a love story as much about its star-crossed protagonists as it was Cleveland, cocks an eye on the way Americans live, love and die. The result is a wickedly funny set of stories that pop and sizzle.
Winegardner's characters are, for the most part, working class folks just trying to scrape by. Husbands and wives from Raymond Carver would feel right at home here, as would fathers and sons from Richard Ford, college professors from Charles Baxter, binge drinkers from John Cheever, and just about everyone from Alice Munro. At every turn in That's True of Everybody, characters find themselves walking a high wire without a safety net. On any given page, there's the danger of a toe-slip and someone plunging to the ground.
That's true of every good short story -- the ones where characters are caught in the vise of circumstance, blinded by the flash of epiphany, convinced to put their hand on a doorknob, turn, push, step through. Winegardner manages to make these moments both outrageously funny and convincingly real.
Harry was raised to believe American lives were arcs of progress, all trends generally up. That's how it was, until it wasn't. When did that happen? By the time he noticed, it had been that way for a while. He felt that way a long time before Anna left. Maybe it was all Ronald Reagan's fault.
That's from "Thirty-Year-Old Women Do Not Always Come Home" and Harry, the father of the phallus artist, is clearly adrift in the post-Reagan era. The story ends with him trying to make himself heard:
Someday, someone would hear what it was Harry Kreevich was really trying to say.
There's no doubt about what Winegardner is trying to say and he says it so well. Every so often, a sentence will pop off the page and floor you with its simple beauty: Her hair was ablaze with the hard miracle of winter sunshine.
Taken individually, Winegardner's sentences have the sharp bite of cleverness:
In the minister's mayonnaise-smelling office, the man was moved by the Holy Spirit, or so he said, and proposed to the girl.
The place [a cheap motel] had been built in a time when Formica was dark and plentiful.
He looked across the restaurant, as if the sneeze guard at the salad bar were the most interesting thing ever.
Those are all from "Song for a Certain Girl," in which a nameless teenager -- a pudgy, moonfaced girl with dull brown hair and new breasts -- marries a man many years older, only to find out he's impotent and that the "tall boy" in her ninth-grade class is really the one she's attracted to. It's a sad, stinging story about teenage sexuality and loss of spiritual innocence.
In an interview posted on his publisher's Web site, Winegardner remarks, "I taught writing for a long time and I think one of the stumbling blocks people have when they first start to write is that they are too polite. They underestimate how complicated human beings are." In That's True of Everybody, Winegardner is anything but polite -- and that's what makes him such a pleasure to read. He doesn't namby-pamby across the pages.
A triptych, "Tales of Academic Lunacy," in the middle of the book pokes a poison-tipped stick at higher education. The lunacy in this case is mainly sexual as we see professors humping students with mad glee. One, a famous visiting poet, goes through undergrads like they were Kleenex. Gossip and scandal snare characters as they try to move through the tenured world of the university. It's no coincidence that the first story in the group, "The Visiting Poet," begins with the sentence It is 1991. That is, of course, the year of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas quagmire. There are no pubic hairs on Coke cans here, but there are plenty of other academic shenanigans. Winegardner, currently the director of the creative writing program at Florida State University, spares little pity for his lunatic professors. He's also quite funny. Here's the opening paragraph to "The Untenured Lecturer":
There once was an earnest man who, in his late thirties, had a heart attack, remarried, bought a high-end personal computer, left his job as a statehouse reporter, and, despite a lack of talent, was admitted to a creative-writing program at a big concrete university in one of the rectangular states, where he wrote the longest master's thesis in school history. He'd been a good statehouse reporter. The man's name was Phil Workman; his thesis was a 773-page autobiographical novel called Legal Adulthood. No one on his committee read beyond page nineteen.
"How We Came to Indiana" is a curious retelling of a John Cheever short story, "The Death of Justina." While Cheever tells his story from the perspective of a ne'er-do-well father who must take care of his wife's cousin after she dies on their living room sofa, Winegardner approaches it from the point of view of the fourteen-year-old son who finds himself following in his father's footprints. It's a clever riff on Cheever (hey, if pop musicians can "cover" rock-and-roll hits, who's to say writers can't do the same?) and concludes with this neat-no-ice sentence: I see alcoholism as a pit in the middle of a road: always there, waiting for the next lost wayfarer.
While most of the stories have the sting of cynicism, at least one of them, "Last Love Song at the Valentine," is poignant, wistful, softer than the others. In it, a family-owned drive-in movie theater slowly dies over the years, just as the family breaks apart. The story ends with the father blowing the dust off his old coronet and playing Good King Wenceslas for his son.
He missed four or five notes. His tone was thin. I knew this was pathetic, and probably so did he, and he played, anyway, and I didn't say anything. It was good to hear. We looked each other in the eye, which is a weirdly intimate thing to do with a man blowing inexpertly into a brass instrument. By any objective standard, he must have sounded terrible.
It's an absolutely heartbreaking scene.
It's one of the few instances we feel pulled close to Winegardner's characters. Most of the time, his hard, caustic style keeps us at arm's length. But that's okay because these people aren't here to be loved; they are objects in the mirror, which may be closer than they appear. | October 2002
David Abrams has written for Esquire, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.