John Hopkins University Press, 2019. 173 pages.
Reviewed by Rebecca Bernard
Claire Jimenez’s debut collection, Staten Island Stories, skillfully balances the global with the local, the particularity of place, alongside the universally human. These are stories rooted in the space and politics of New York’s sometimes less-considered borough, but they are also socially-minded tales of human suffering and human joy, united by an uncanny realism and a persistent ability to tap into the most basic and honest human desires. Jimenez presents a hopeful narrative, not in any kind of naïve or wistful way, but a hope grounded in the firmly rational terrain of human endeavor. Loosely based on The Canterbury Tales, Jimenez’s roughly linked stories follow a diverse array of individuals from the opening story’s, “angry adjunct,” to the heart-sick teenager working the Halloween/gift shop to the addled single-mother who works at the DMV and takes care of her ailing mother in the collection’s final story. These are voice-driven stories; all but one are told in the first-person point of view. Though Jimenez’s characteristic wit and directness come through in each piece, the voices themselves remain unique—original and distinct to the human beings whose difficulties they embody.
In trying to articulate what sets these stories apart, I find myself marveling at the way in which Jimenez’s characters operate within the ‘real’ world—our world—with its police brutality, its classism, socioeconomic insecurity, racism and addiction. Yet the stories never feel didactic; instead, these concerns feel embedded within the fabric of these characters’ lives, just as they’re embedded in our own. These characters are aware of the inequality inherent in this country, but even when they lack power, as they so often do, they refuse to be complacent, instead fighting with whatever means possible, be it humor, self-awareness or simply a refusal to accept the status quo. We see this epitomized with Luis, from “The Grant Writer’s Tale,” a young man enraged by the state’s decision not to press charges against the officer who killed Eric Garner. Luis finds himself at the head of a protest, trying to get home, pushed down on the ground by police: “I could hear myself saying in a voice that I could not recognize, wild and unpracticed and unstrategic, pointing over the harbor toward the Island: ‘Fuck you, I live there. That is where I’m from.’”
In each of these stories, Jimenez presents a devastating situation, but with a wit and a familiarity that reminds us even as we suffer, we also often laugh. Her characters are able to see their difficulties with perspective. For example, in “Great Kills,” a woman named Toni decides at the last minute to attend her high school reunion, bringing along her friend Lisa. Both women are addicts struggling to stay clean. Toni decides to attend because “[Lisa and I] did that sometimes, went to places that used to make us sick, so that we could laugh.” We learn that Toni has a son relegated to her mother’s care, and as we watch the two women get stoned and somewhat unsuccessfully try to find their way to the bar where the reunion is being held, the darkness of Toni’s situation in life comes through clearly. As readers, we empathize with her pain and recognize in her description of sitting on the couch, zoning out, what sounds like depression: “Some days that was how it was. I didn’t even have the attention span to peel a piece of cheese away from its sleeve.” But the text doesn’t let us linger here. This is not a story of young expectations ruined, rather, this is a story about the unexpected ways we might surprise ourselves, the chances we might be given. To be clear, the story does not offer the form of redemption a reader would readily expect. Instead, like in life, the path is not always so straight. At one point, Toni describes how her friend Lisa used to joke with her: “’Jesus Christ—nice looking white girl like you—what the fuck happened?’ Then [Lisa’d] pretend to be Oprah: ‘I just want to understand what exactly happened to you in your childhood?’ I’d shrug and lift both hands up. ‘I was beaten and denied food.’” Things do not often turn out as we expect them to, but when we’re able to find humor in what comes our way, Jimenez’s stories indicate, we’re more likely to remain sane.
Jimenez’ characters know the world is indifferent to their situation, but this does not mean they are hopeless. Rather, there’s an ongoing sense of defiance in the face of circumstances outside their control. Self-affirmation becomes essential because outside affirmation is not always, or ever, forthcoming. In this vein, the reader se