I picked this up over 4th of July weekend at Tim’s Used Books in Provincetown. Click on the link to the store, and you’ll see why I had to follow the path to the store’s front door — it had too much sense of mystery to pass up. The store is small. The fiction section is a single floor to ceiling shelf, not much wider than I am. I like that in a bookstore, though. It’s nice to be able to read all the titles in the fiction section and then start pondering. I like getting a balanced alphabet in my selections.
I like to buy souvenirs when I travel, but this is the sort of thing I get. To be honest, I’d be unlikely to read histories of Provincetown, and I’ve got little use for picture-filled coffee table books. On the other hand, I always remember the bookstores I visit. I still remember that 10 years ago, during my first visit to the St. John’s College Bookstore in Annapolis, where I later ended up working off and on for four years, I bought a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish and Other Poems. Or that, a year and a half ago at San Francisco’s famous City Lights Books, I bought Georges Bataille’s deeply disturbing Story of the Eye, a book that I’m not sure I will ever have the courage to read again. The experience of reading these books will forever color my memories of these places.
And sometimes, the souvenir is even more serendipitous. When I bought McCracken’s book, the bookseller informed me that she used to be a customer at that store. The stories in her book are set deeply in Massachusetts, and are populated with odd characters. I ended up thinking of Provincetown as I read these stories, imagining that she was surely influenced by that place — a beach town that must go deeply gloomy in the winter, full of hordes of tourists and drag queens in the summer.
I knew I had to buy the book when I read the first paragraph of the first story, “It’s Bad Luck to Die.”
Maybe you wonder how a Jewish girl from Des Moines got Jesus Christ tattooed on her three times: ascending on one thigh, crucified on the other, and conducting a miniature apocalypse beneath the right shoulder. It wasn’t religion that put them there; it was Tiny, my husband. I have a Buddha round back, too. He was going to give me Moses parting the Red Sea, but I was running out of space. Besides, I told him, I was beginning to feel like a Great Figures in Religion comic book.
While I love short stories, I’m sometimes suspicious of literary fiction, which I suspected McCracken’s book of being. I find that sometimes, in literary fiction, it seems like nothing happens. There are pretty descriptions, but no plot. This wasn’t the case here. People murder people, fall in love with people, run away from their families, lie to each other. And most of the characters are delightfully strange, even while many of the stories have a dark streak. Here are quick comments on my favorites:
The title story is the one that’s really going to stay with me. “Aunt Helen Beck” concocts family relationships that she uses to mooch of strangers for as long as she can get away with it. McCracken uses this full name every time she mentions her, and this is an important piece of characterization in itself. Here’s an excerpt:
Aunt Helen Beck worked hard at all the things that convinced people to let her stay. She got up early to bake bread, examined the books that were on the shelves and referred to them in conversation. She did dishes immediately; cooked for herself; went to bed early and pretended to sleep soundly.
She charmed Mercury, at least. He adored her, and started playing in the yard less and in the house more. She instructed Mercury to behave, she threatened him with poems about goblins that stole nasty children, and he seemed eager to be taken, and asked her if she were the head goblin.
Every quirky detail in those paragraphs is made to count once Aunt Helen Beck’s ruse is discovered. In fact, I just now noticed that stealing nasty children turns out to be a theme. What seems to be a throwaway line on a first read is actually a carefully chosen piece of foreshadowing.
My other favorites are “Mercedes Kane,” about a woman who gets to meet, as an adult, the child prodigy she worshiped as a girl, and “Secretary of State,” which is a story about the sort of family that keeps all its members trapped in its web of opinion, but turns out to be a bittersweet story about love.
I’m glad I picked up this book and got the chance to discover McCracken. It looks like her next book is a memoir. I’m sorry that it seems she’s moved away from short stories, but perhaps I’ll read more of her in the future.