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The nine connected stories of Damn Love (Ig Publishing) go down as smoothly as the first slaking pull on a mixed drink; it’s only upon reflection that the regional and cultural disparities pulling these characters apart and driving them together reveal the extent of their depth and complexity. Put another way, you can read the book in an afternoon, but you’ll by no means be done with it so quickly.
“Stayin’ Alive” opens the book and introduces us to a nameless narrator, a young doctor at UCSF who has just been dumped by her girlfriend. This new, lonely normal is interwoven with her busy work life treating drug addicts, and a story from her childhood that partially illuminates why she gravitated to that particular specialty. Before Emily, the girlfriend, bails out, we see the narrator studying and working to distraction and neglecting her relationship. We’re inclined to take her side, though, since she’s put us so squarely in her head. Then a comment she makes about her parents’ past relationship– “For years, those fights presented like the symptoms of a looming divorce”—bears out Emily’s view of a woman too single-minded to live in the present. Even her memories are diagnostic! In a later story we see the narrator, Alex, through someone else’s recollection, and that second opinion also tends to confirm Emily’s view.
The stories are set in San Francisco and North Carolina, which allows for cultural contrast on multiple levels. Ruth is ill but hasn’t told her son Peter, with whom she has secretly reconnected via email after he was exiled from the family home for being gay; she keeps the correspondence from her husband, and justifies it with the support of her church. In an early story she’s tempted to fly west for his wedding, but circumstances intervene. They’re reunited in a later story, this one told from Peter’s point of view, and a painful glimpse of familial love perched on highly unstable ground.
Earthquakes are a trope in this collection—some of the East Coast transplants run for shelter in doorways at the merest hint of a 3.0 tremor while Californians avert their eyes and try not to laugh. When a larger event happens, it serves to unite the collection even as its characters are caught unawares and far from home. Think of the Raymond Carver stories pulled together into Robert Altman’s ‘Short Cuts’; having seen these people wear various faces to suit their locale and company, we now find them refreshingly unmasked. In “Hit Me,” relapsed addict Weasel, who is attracted to his Case Manager to the point of reveries about her private life, finds himself in her office when the crisis hits. “He thinks to himself, this is even better than the Saturday-morning Ruthie. This is the Emergency Ruthie.” By this time we know and care for these people, and the story’s two last lines edge concern with bitter resignation: “Cities shake and the Pacific quivers and there is nothing to do but wait. They all know better than to fight it.”
That last line could be an epigraph for ‘Damn Love’. No matter where your home is, life will conspire to shake your foundation from time to time. The characters here range from personal success to perennial striver and several variations thereof, and they each look for love with a mix of patience and determination, waiting to see if it comes through in the end.
By Jasmine Beach-Ferrara
Paperback, $15.95, 192 pages
Paperback, 9781935439783, 192 pp.