Drinking Coffee Elsewhere
by Z.Z. Packer
Published by Riverhead Books
238 pages, 2003
The Undertow of Words
Reviewed by David Abrams
Long before you open Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, ZZ Packer's voice is a wave born in mid-ocean, gathering strength, obeying the moon's pull, churning toward land, so that when you finally do turn to the first page and read the first paragraph of the first story ("Brownies"), her strong, confident voice crashes over you:
By our second day at Camp Crescendo, the girls in my Brownie troop had decided to kick the asses of each and every girl in Brownie Troop 909. Troop 909 was doomed from the first day of camp; they were white girls, their complexions a blend of ice cream: strawberry, vanilla. They turtled out from their bus in pairs, their rolled-up sleeping bags chromatized with Disney characters: Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Mickey Mouse; or the generic ones cheap parents bought: washed-out rainbows, unicorns, curly-eyelashed frogs. Some clutched Igloo coolers and still others held on to stuffed toys like pacifiers, looking all around them like tourists determined to be dazzled.
From that point forward, everything else is undertow.
Packer -- whose much-lauded stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's and the late great Story -- arrives on the already-crowded short fiction market with all the fiery energy of Flannery O'Connor on a good day. The eight stories in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere are, as the dust jacket photo attests, messages in a bottle or, more accurately, lightning in a bottle. Not only is the writing crisp and sharp, but Packer has a firm chokehold on each of her pitiable characters, most of whom are black teenage girls. She knows their hopes, their anxieties, their resounding disappointments. In each story, startling revelations lie in wait for us, crouching in the pages ahead, waiting for the well-timed moment to leap out at us, claws extended.
In the brilliant "Brownies," Packer jolts us at every turn of the page as we watch a group of black Girl Scouts prepare to take revenge on a troop of white Scouts for a perceived racial insult. Nothing turns out as expected -- for the Brownies or for readers of this tightly-wound story. The narrator, a loner nicknamed "Snot," gradually comes to realize "there was something mean in the world that I could not stop."
In "Every Tongue Shall Confess," Sister Clareese sings in the choir of the Greater Christ Emmanuel Pentecostal Church of the Fire Baptized and during the rest of the week at her nursing job, tries to convert an obstinate patient who mocks her at every turn. She straps on the Breastplate of Righteousness and marches forward, undaunted as Mrs. May on the horns of the bull in O'Connor's "Greenleaf."
In "The Ant of the Self," a teenage debate-team champ picks his father up from jail and reluctantly drives him to the Million Man March in Washington, D.C. The ne'er-do-well father hopes to sell exotic birds to "the Afrocentric folks there." The chagrined son tells us, "He's so stupid, he's brilliant; so outside of the realm of any rationality that reason stammers and stutters when facing him." At the March, the boy hears a preacher exhort his listeners to cast off "the ant of the self -- that small, blind, crumb-seeking part of ourselves." Getting rid of his good-for-nothing father isn't so easy, however.
"Geese" follows the downward spiral of a group of young people, including an American girl, Dina (who also appears in another story), who can't find work in Tokyo. They're slowly starving, at one point sharing a grapefruit and a banana between five people. The story relentlessly knocks them down from "the all-knowing arrogance of youth" to increasing desperation.
Other stories put us in the gritty terrain of drugs and prostitution in Atlanta, an unruly classroom in Baltimore, and a lunch counter in 1961 where a young girl -- the only black student in her class -- stages a mini sit-in protest. Packer never condescends to her characters, or the reader, as she tells the tales in voices that vibrate with wit, anger and wisdom.
She has distilled her writing so that, in its 100-proof potency, it goes right to the back of the throat. Consider these two descriptions of characters from "Brownies":
Daphne hardly ever spoke, but when she did, her voice was petite and tinkly, the voice one might expect from a shiny new earring.
Usually people were quiet after Arnetta spoke. Her tone had an upholstered confidence that was somehow both regal and vulgar at once. It demanded a few moments of silence in its wake, like the ringing of a church bell or the playing of taps.
As William Strunk once advised would-be writers: "Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts."
Nothing is wasted in a ZZ Packer story; every word relentlessly moves the reader forward to climaxes that sometimes leave us dangling in mid-air and sometimes bring us crashing down with, in the case of "Our Lady of Peace," three final, devastating words ("C'mon. Make me.").
On every page of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, you feel the suck of the under-pulling water. Don't try to resist. Just let yourself drown in her words. | March 2003
David Abrams has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.