February 8, 2010


Tales of Envy and Revenge
by S. P. Miskowski
124 pages. YouWriteOn.

Review by Kate Kasserman

At least in America, whereof I can speak – and the five stories that comprise Red Poppies are all set in the American northwest – we enjoy a marrow-deep delusion (and I’m knocking it, but I still believe it – that’s how insidious it is) that somewhere, somehow everyone has a special something in them that has the potential to vault them to the top of the heap. They’re sensitive, they’re smart, they’re venturesome, they have the patience to collect navel lint for years – SOMETHING that gives them an edge, an edge that can be turned to some sort of glory and accomplishment, however small (cf. navel lint).

It is not, shall we say, a wholly accurate reflection of reality. Even Horatio Alger, the Prophet of Upward Mobility in the first great age of American robber barons, put LUCK first in his holy trinity: luck, pluck, and decency. (And the “decency” bit was pure moralizing on his part, and a dramatic contrivance to justify the luck.)

In Red Poppies, we have a more logical set of requirements: luck, talent, and passion. Which turns, sometimes, into means, motive, and opportunity.

It is not only possible but in fact very much with the odds that any given individual will have only one or a few pieces of the puzzle, not the whole shebang. The box promises a picture of “bulldog sleeping with puffball kittens,” or “Notre Dame on a sunny day” but all we can build out of what we’ve got is the neutral-colored carpet or some inoffensive blue sky with an errant pigeon. Red Poppies takes a good, hard look at the VERY darkly comic (people do die) results of these almost-rans. They’re not quite there. And at whatever level, all of them know it. But there’s sweet FA any of them can do about it – and that’s when the fun begins.

Miskowski shows a sniper’s aim in characterization and dialogue, zeroing in on the most (heh, often hilariously) damning statements and internal observations by the characters in all their perverted, self-justifying, hypocritical, disastrous splendor. Art and theater wannabes figure prominently in several stories, and I KNOW these people (I’m not naming names – I want to stay alive, here!) – not the cheerful dilettantes and hobbyists, but the aggrieved peripherals and failures who either can’t or won’t put it together to do something themselves and then set themselves up as attitudinous parasites. Like someone who thinks fly-fishing itself is boring but wants not only to walk around in waders but have people respect and admire the waders. Even in coffee shops and white-tie affairs. (Not rivers, ever.)

The title story of the book, and my favorite of the five, gives us Hazel, an apparently stolid cleaning lady content to dribble out her years in numb, friendless menial work – until she runs into someone special, who in turn makes her feel special too. Paula is a high-strung trophy wife (she also has a case of flaming borderline personality disorder, I might mention by the bye), and she takes Hazel under her wing as a “muse” (to wit, a near-mute compliant subordinate obedient to Paula’s every whim). Hazel seems to have made her peace with a failed life, but Paula, quite vocally, has not. Paula latches onto one shrill, impotent scheme after another in order to – what? Support her own sense of specialness, and nothing but, and it is both savagely funny and very, very sad to watch her be quite so histrionic and self-defeating. Take Paula on learning from Hazel that the exercise class she wanted to attend is not an option that week:

“No!” she shouted. “Did you explain how desperately I need movement right now? And did you tell them what Dr. Lammerworth said, that I could follow along at my own pace, and if I got tired I should lie down on the floor near the instructor where no one can step on my toe by accident? Did you tell them if I don’t get a workout soon I am going to go out of my mind?”

“Yeah,” I said. “And they said that the class is cancelled. They said: ‘Tell her that the class is definitely cancelled.’”

“How can I bear this trial another minute?” she screamed. “I am so out of shape, I’m drowning in my own fat!”

Now this wasn’t true. Because no matter how many brownies or White Russians or slices of vanilla cheesecake I served Paula, she stayed amazingly skinny. I thought she must have a high metabolism, some people do. But she said it was because of her eating disorder and I would never understand since I was normal. Actually, she said:

“You’re so lucky to be an ordinary person.”

I should note in Paula’s defense that her toe was indeed slightly injured.

Hazel is a careful observer, and her flat affect provides a marvelous setting for the full unimpeded glitter of Paula’s crazy. Well, as Paula knew in the first place – that’s why she picked Hazel. Madam Dull Cleaning Lady, we slowly learn, is not really as dumb as a bag of dirt; we see her making practical, largely nonjudgmental assessments of the various situations thrown at her and unfreezing a bit as the constant, if idiotic and increasingly dangerous, excitement of Paula-world seeps into Hazel’s sense of herself.

I am too familiar with the all-but-inevitable trajectory of borderlines to have had too much hope for Paula, although I will admit to some. She does, after all, have some redeeming features – an aesthetic sense (if an erratic one) and certainly a surfeit of, heh, emotionality. And the chance remains that by doing some good for Hazel, Paula will, despite herself, actually contribute to the world, a happy result all around!

But then Hazel’s status as “chief locus of Paula’s fractured attention” is supplanted by a newcomer, Paula’s husband’s teenaged son by his first marriage (Mr. Livingston seems to have a taste for wacky women, and his ex-wife has managed to get herself incarcerated). Then the question becomes whether Hazel has really had her own soul opened by Paula’s emotionality and aesthetics, or whether she’s simply become addicted to Paula’s sense of entitlement.

It’s a question that is repeated, from various angles, in various forms throughout the other four stories in the collection. Both the wicked, sometimes painful humor of the entitled shrilly demanding their unearned due, and the profound dangerousness of messing with that no matter how stupid it is, hit the target. These stories have a sting and leave a mark. Speaking as someone with her own histrionic and inflationary tendencies, I have found myself on several occasions after reading Red Poppies starting to say something and then hauling myself up short with an internal dialogue that runs something like this: “Ohshitohshitshutup.”

Miskowski makes it funny – which lets her get away with saying a lot.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for reviewing Red Poppies. I appreciate it. Getting readers to check out a collection by an author they haven't heard of is quite a challenge. And many book reviewers are already overwhelmed by titles from publishers with well-oiled PR departments. So it's nice to get an unsolicited review from a colleague. Cheers!