The biggest problem with Jincy Willett’s short story collection, Jenny and the Jaws of Life, is the cover. At the top, we have David Sedaris proclaiming this to be “the funniest collection of stories I’ve ever read.” The blurbs on the back talk about the wit and the whoops of laughter. And those feet on the cover—one of them is wearing flip-flops with daisies on them. Was I wrong to expect laugh-out-loud funny? Sure, the funny might be tinged with darkness—those people on the cover are stuck in a sardine can after all—but I was thinking Dorothy Parker. What I got was Flannery O’Connor.
I don’t read a lot of short stories, but I do love Flannery O’Connor’s stories, so comparing Jincy Willett to Flannery O’Connor is a great compliment. If the characters were from the southern rural U.S., the opening story in this collection, “Julie in the Funhouse,” could fit pretty nicely in a collection of O’Connor’s stories. Her voice is different, sure, but the mood of the story would be just right. The trouble is that when I picked up this collection, I was not in the mood for O’Connor.
Still, not wanting to return this to the library unread, I decided to press on. At first, the stories were hit or miss. A few I think would have been misses no matter what my mood. “Father of Invention,” for example, was composed of some very brilliant little sketches that didn’t quite hang together for me. And a few were so good that they could break through no matter what my mood. “The Best of Betty” is a series of letters and responses in an advice column, and as the letters go on, we see the columnist lose her patience and her grip. It starts with letters like this one to a regular correspondent who suggested that readers use the cups of their old brassieres and set them out in your annual garden as little domes to cover fragile seedlings in their gardens:
Why the heck not? And hey, don’t throw away those brassiere straps! Kids love to carry their schoolbooks in them, especially once you’ve disguised their identity with precision-cut strips of silver mylar cemented front and back with epoxy, then adorned with tiny hand-sewn appliques in animal or rock-star designs. Use your imagination!
And this is early in the story. It gets weirder, and funnier, and it was probably the closest to what I was expecting from this collection. And I think it helped me “get” Willett’s voice somehow because after reading “The Best of Betty,” I enjoyed the rest of the stories very much. “Justine Laughs at Death” is also very, very funny, but it’s the kind of funny that you get when the main character is a serial killer who’s being driven insane.
Most of the stories weren’t laugh-out-loud funny, but there were some uncomfortable chuckles of recognition, as when in “Resume” the narrator admits to being the sort of person who would walk away from someone making a racist comment, but not indignantly to make a statement. Instead, he would pretend he had to go to the bathroom. And “Mr. Lazenbee” shows a little girl behaving in an unbelievably shocking, even evil manner, but somehow Willett makes it possible to empathize with a girl who shows no empathy, while never getting sentimental or squishy about it.
Overall, this is a very good collection of stories, but it’s probably best to ignore the cover. It just sets the wrong mood. And read “The Best of Betty” first, followed by “Mr. Lazenbee.” I think with those two stories, you’ll get the lightest and the darkest ends of the collection and maybe have a better idea of whether Willett’s stories will suit you.