Have 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.