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 sees the insidious ways that racism and classism infect all arenas of life. In “You Are A Strange Imitation of a Woman,” Frances, a protagonist struggling with mental illness, tries to keep herself in balance and keep her job despite how difficult her young, white female boss makes her working experience. This boss is clearly less qualified than Frances and her friend and co-worker, Dolores, and yet takes every opportunity to flaunt her authority over the two women. Neither woman accepts this inequity, but Dolores chooses to keep her head down, while Frances, heated, ends up getting fired. But the reader doesn’t feel as if Dolores is acquiescing, rather, she takes a pragmatic approach to an impossible situation. The story highlights the women’s contrasting approaches in romance as well when Frances struggles to accept the affection of a new man, venting to Dolores: “’Every year it gets harder for me to love somebody new!’ Dolores shakes her head as if I don’t get it. ‘Me, I’m simple. I love the same people I’ve loved my whole life.’” These moments of insight strike to the core—despite what these characters are made to undergo, they maintain their sense of self, undeterred by the unfairness of the world that holds them.
In “Underneath the Water You Could Actually Hear Bells,” the Latina narrator discovers her husband, a ‘Norman Rockwellesque figure’ is cheating on her, but Jimenez upsets the reader’s expectations yet again. This is not a simple story about infidelity, rather an exploration of the ways that issues of race and class infiltrate even the supposedly safe space of marriage. The narrator describes her husband, a man who sometimes asks her to speak Spanish for his friends, who “grew up in a house where they paid full price for everything.” And yet, when the narrator’s childhood friend, Cordelia Woo, a successful actress in LA, comes to visit, the narrator sees her own insecurity in relief, despite her awareness of the grossness of her husband’s actions: “You could tell that Woo would never let somebody betray her like that, and I wondered what about me had allowed that to happen. ‘I guess I just wanted so desperately for it to work.’ ‘What do you mean?’ Woo looked equal parts mortified and amused, as if it was such a silly, stupid thing, what I had done. This stupid thing which was such a big part of me.”
There’s a heartbreaking honesty in the way the narrator admits to wanting this love to work, despite her awareness of her husband’s flaws, his privilege, the ways he marginalizes her for her ethnicity. In a way, the existence of this desire to make things work, regardless of the inequity, points to something powerful and toxic within the culture at large, how awareness of marginalization does not necessarily lead to its defeat.
In “Who Would Break the Dark First,” the reader is presented a ghost story, a house haunted, as a Puerto Rican family, a single mother and her children, move into their first standalone home in an all-white Staten Island neighborhood. Here we are made to question: what’s the true source of this haunting? Is it the monster in the basement, or the monster that exists in our towns, neighborhoods, country? Maybe it is where prejudice lurks, certainly more dangerous and less imaginary than that which goes boo in the night.
And yet, despite these stories’ awareness of injustice, their unblinking look at how people live, struggle, laugh, exist alongside intolerance and economic unfairness, these are not stories that lack hope, that utterly despair at the state of this country, this borough. Because, in defiance of the realities they encounter—Eric Garner, the 2016 election—they also show what good can come, even if we don’t expect it, or aren’t used to seeing it. As the final line of the book states beautifully, “Accept it, Jul. Sometimes, people are not as ugly as you think.” Staten Island, like the rest of our country, sometimes, can offer us a bit of hope.
Rebecca Bernard is a PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of North Texas where she serves as Managing Editor for American Literary Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, Southwest Review, Pleiades, Meridian and elsewhere. Her work received notable mention in the Best American Short Stories of 2018.