Single, Carefree, Mellow: Stories by Katherine Heiny, $22.95 (Alfred A. Knopf, February 3, 2015)
The title of Katherine Heiny’s collection of short stories is misleading, but in retrospect, perhaps there is an ironic intention in that. The title – Single, Carefree, Mellow: Stories – conjures up memories of me in my twenties, spending sixty-hour work weeks at a job I loved, and reserving weekends for trips to the Jersey Shore or the city, laughing with girlfriends, flirting with boys in bars. My recollections of the single, carefree and mellow life is that there were relatively few responsibilities, no stress, no worries, no conflict, no kids, no companion, and no complications.
But the female characters in many (not all) of the eleven short stories in Heiny’s collection have plenty of complications, because of one unifying reason – they have become involved in or interested in having secret sexual affairs that have potential to upset their lives.
The collection starts with “The Dive Bar” and Sasha, a twenty-something writer of young adult novels caught up in an affair with a married man. Heiny’s approach is entirely sympathetic to Sasha, yet in an unsentimental way. Heiny expertly captures the naiveté of a certain type of young person, the kind with the inability to see much beyond one’s own happiness and the impact one’s actions can have on others’ happiness. Right away, too, in this first story, we get a taste of the humor that prevails throughout the book – so subtle yet spot-on that I often laughed out loud.
In “Blue Heron Bridge,” for example, mother, wife, stepmother, medical librarian and adulteress Nina has provided temporary housing to Reverend McWilliams, who suffers from a different kind of naiveté than Sasha in “The Dive Bar.” Nina feels that having Reverend McWilliams in her home is “like having an exchange student from Sudan, or maybe rural Scotland, someplace where people lead a very sheltered existence.” Later, when Nina’s teenage stepdaughter sets up a Facebook account for the good reverend, Nina explains that Reverend McWilliams still referred to the social media site as Friendbook.
“The whole family called it Friendbook now. Just the way they called the bread knife the ‘special knife’ and their iPhones ‘portaphones.’ It was like having a two-year-old in the house again, except one that wasn’t cute or related to them.”
Heiny’s writing is smooth and chatty. As the stories progressed, I could identify with the different stages of life the female characters were in. In “That Dance You Do,” for example, Heiny crafts a slice of mommy life – the children’s birthday party – with such incredible nuggets of authentic observation that I wanted to email the story to all my mommy friends (I didn’t – I reviewed this work from a paperback galley and my friends will have to wait to buy the collection when it becomes available in early 2015).
Take, for example, the following first encounter in “That Dance You Do” with the children’s birthday party magician:
“You’re on your way to the laundry room to look for the camisole you normally wear under the low-cut shirt you’ve just put on when the doorbell rings.
You answer and a middle-aged man who looks like a suburban serial killer peers down the front of your shirt and says, ‘Hello, I’m Manny the Magician.’” (I feel a need to mention here that there is no affair between the female protagonist and the magician in this story.)
And while there is plenty of humor, this is not a breezy short story collection, either. “The Rhett Butlers,” for example, takes on the story of a seventeen-year-old drawn into an affair with a lecherous, predatory teacher. And in “Grendel’s Mother,” pregnant Maya reflects “…eventually, you got what you wanted – lover, husband, baby – and you still remembered that you had once felt lonely and bereft and incomplete, but you forgot that other people went on feeling that way. You forgot that some people never got what they wanted, or got it and managed to keep it only briefly. You forgot about all that love out in the world, with no place to go.”
Single, Carefree, Mellow is a wonderful collection. The author’s writing style and voice and observations and characterizations and stories are rich and interesting and funny and I liked them all and truly hope Heiny turns at least one of these stories into a full-length novel or, even, gives us more short stories about these characters’ lives.
Dawn D’Aries Zera is a writer nearly ready to find an agent for her first novel. She also teaches writing to college students in northeastern Pennsylvania and is managing editor, print, for the Kaylie Jones Books imprint. Follow her @dawnmdzera on Twitter, and as dawniemdzera on Instagram.