Drinking Coffee Elsewhere

Drinking CoffeeHave you ever picked up a book and known from the first paragraph that you were in good hands? That’s how I felt from the very first lines of “Brownies,” the opening story in this short story collection by ZZ Packer:

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.

All that gorgeous detail! Those sleeping bags! I remember those sleeping bags. And note how she sets the story in time by not referencing Ariel or Pocahontas, even though the collection was published in 2003. These are almost certainly girls of the 1980s—a hunch later confirmed by the mention of Chic jeans. There’s the word turtled! So evocative! And of course a group of Brownies (girls under about 10) preparing to kick the asses of a bunch of privileged white girls in some sort of preteen race war.

OK, yes, that’s pretty dark. Have I mentioned that I like my short stories dark?

“Brownies” is most certainly a dark story. The story’s narrator, Snot, feels growing unease at the possibility of violence, and the reasoning for the violence turns and then turns again as these girls from entirely different worlds fail to see each other. The twists are delicious. It feels a little like a Flannery O’Connor story in the way the nastiness crescendos to the point that Snot concludes “there was something mean in the world that I could not stop.”

All the stories address the meanness of the world and how easy it is to get trapped in it. And they’re all written with clarity and confidence, filled with details that drew me right into the scene, whether the scene is at the Greater Christ Emmanuel Pentecostal Church of the Fire Baptized, the dining hall at Yale, or an overcrowded Tokyo apartment. I didn’t love all the stories as much as I did “Brownies,” but I appreciated Packer’s skill in every single one of them.

Many of the stories touch on issues of race or religion. There are more echoes of Flannery O’Connor, especially in “Every Tongue Shall Confess,” in which a good Christian lady tries to reach her patients for Jesus but ends up rattled by one man’s questions. Most of the characters are African-American, and many of them are strivers, looking to climb out of worlds where everything seemed stacked against them. The lead character in “The Ant of the Self” finds escape through debate until his dad, recently released from jail, draws him into a journey that’s meant to inspire him but only leaves him stranded… literally.

Tia from “Speaking in Tongues” chooses her own escape from the strict church where she gets locked in a closet for laughing, but she’s too young and too sheltered to get it right. Yet somehow—unbelievably—she manages to escape the worst disasters. I was glad of that, even if I didn’t believe it. These are stories where no one is safe, and it was calming to see her somehow skirt past the worst disasters even while failing to find proper sanctuary. The story, like many in the collection, suggests that kindness and cruelty can come from unexpected places. I think that idea may be the thread that holds these stories together. The world is a dangerous place, not just because of all the meanness that we can’t stop but because of the kindnesses that put us off our guard.

Yes, they’re dark stories. That’s just what I like.

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17 Responses to Drinking Coffee Elsewhere

  1. Elle says:

    These look terrific. ZZ Packer is an author I really want to explore–what a brilliant quotation you’ve pulled from “Brownies”. Reminds me of summer camp, in a v uncomfortable (e.g. spot-on) sort of way.

  2. Alex says:

    Into the wish-list it goes. It also got me at the first paragraph. I’d never even heard of ZZ Packer!

    • Teresa says:

      This collection was pretty popular (as short story collections go) when it first came out, and I think she’s had other stories published in magazines and anthologies, but that kind of writing doesn’t often lead to big fame, even in bookish circles.

  3. eviepea48 says:

    Yes, please! Will be purchasing this.

  4. Christy says:

    Definitely dark stories – I wouldn’t have thought to compare it to Flannery O’Connor, but I can see it. Brownies might be the best story. I enjoyed reading about the dynamics of the girls. And that paragraph is indeed very good. Not sure the writing in the other stories lived up to that story. I also liked “The Ant of the Self” – where she chose to begin and end scenes was well-done in particular. The book was a quick read, but overall, I didn’t feel strongly one way or other about the stories.

    • Teresa says:

      “Brownies” was definitely the best. I was the most alive with details and probably the most perverse as well. But I liked the other stories a lot, too. O’Connor is hands-down my favorite short story writer, so the similarities in subject and (sometimes) tone really made me sit up and take notice. That’s why I was so captured by “Every Tongue Shall Confess.” By the third story, about the teacher, I was completely hooked.

  5. lbloxham says:

    I taught “Brownies” for many years in a first year literature class. Still one of my favorite stories.

  6. Gotta have it. This sounds right up my street.

  7. Ahahaha, is it actually a race war or are you employing hyperbole? I mean I love it either way — and YES I do remember those sleeping bags! I had one very, very briefly, and after that my parents bought us these (what seemed to me) extremely fancy, hardcore sleeping bags that ROLLED UP INTO A BAG (this was very impressive to little me) and kept you warm down to I can’t remember what temperature. But they were just plain red. No Belle on them.

    I am trying to be more open to short story collections, so onto my list this book goes!

    • Teresa says:

      Some hyperbole–race-related conflict would be more accurate. But then it goes into some different directions. There are layers.

      For such a long time, I had a plain navy blue sleeping bag, which would have been appalling to take to camp, even though it was a good brand. By the time I was going to camp, I had a Garfield one, which was socially acceptable at the time, but I help onto it and kept using it long past the point of acceptability. If I’d kept it a little longer, I could probably have used it ironically.

  8. I’m not much for short stories but you make this collection sound terrific. I haven’t read Packer but I also like dark and O’Connor so I think I’ll keep an eye out for this one!

  9. Pingback: Mini-Reviews! | A Good Stopping Point

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