Are we destined to be forever compliant and lead passive lives or can we escape these behaviors and attitudes and become all we might be? How does a person save themselves from ridicule and disappointment? Is the pursuit of control and dignity simply a series of endless trials that we may never surpass? In his novel Stray our Pieces, author Jason Graff attacks big questions like these and offers us hope that we may indeed become the “best” version of ourselves.
Protagonist Gloria Hytner is an ardent mother in this book who seeks to nudge the peaceful and sensient, yet submissive nature of her son, David, into a more active and vital mode when he meets up with a neighborhood bully, Kenny Crumbrick. A constant victim of bullies herself who bounced from law school dreams by her own personal tragedy, Gloria seeks to empower her son to be more proactive and resilient, and avoid her own fate. Yet David is overcome by his own emotions of pain, grief and sorrow. This vulnerability proves to be his greatest weakness— or so Gloria believes.
“I don’t know when his tears began to have that effect on me,” Gloria recounts when David comes home from a bullying incident at the outset of the book. And: “He once cried when the cap got stuck on a tube of toothpaste.” Her son’s sensitivity both touches her and deeply enrages her, both at his own helplessness and her own deep wounds from the victimization she faced.
Although Gloria finds David’s predicament a simple lack of self-defense mechanisms, it echoes her own unwillingness to “stand up” and face her own bullies— her judgemental, disapproving mother; her unfulfilled, lost husband; and, even, her toxic, backstabbing friends—have left her feeling “stray.” As the book unfolds, Graff does an excellent job portraying a series of fights between Gloria and her mother who competes for emotional supremacy through several “rounds” as Graff puts it, adopting a metaphor of a boxing ring.
“What happened to his face?” Gloria’s mother asks after one occasion of bullying, nodding her head at David. “The mark of his snowball fight wound still lingered and she felt it was now fair game.
‘I got hit in the face with a loaded snowball,’ David said, before helping himself to the last of the asparagus, fountains of foul smelling pee, no doubt, dancing in his head.
‘A loaded snowball? What’s that? Who threw it?’ Mother asked with a shriek. ‘Your father?’
‘No,’ David said, his voice cracking, “Kenny Crumbrick.’”
Gloria makes the connection at one point between her son’s emotional trauma to her own emotional bucking at the hands of her own bullying mother and it breaks her: “I hoped he wouldn’t cry. I wanted to ruin the meal a bit but not to the point that anyone would shed actual tears, except maybe for Mother, alone in her bed, hours afterwards.”
‘One of your little hooligan friends?’ she asked. ‘Gloria, when you took to the idea of moving out of the city, I didn’t think you’d flee to some God awful little river valley town populated by Boys’ Town rejects.’
‘He’s not my friend,’ David announced. ‘He’s just always around.’
This sort of emotional jockeying fills the book with a tension and sense of disconnect between generations, and underscores Gloria’s ironic circumstance as the mother to one so like herself.
Gloria seeks to impose her ideas of survival techniques onto her son— practices similar to the mother she despises so adamantly— instead of teaching ideas of self-approval and confidence.
Stray our Pieces begs the question, “how can one teach values if they have not be rightfully taught those values,” to which Graff’s novel dutifully replies: what are the right values and is one ever taught these values correctly?
In its sophisticated take on generational disconnect, Stray our Pieces moves away from conventional conversations of good and evil, and instead focuses on the nuances– shades of grey in the areas of love, expression, courage, dignity, passion.
Graff explores how masking our true feelings by trying to be someone we are not will always be an emotional disservice. As Gloria compares herself to other women by pretending to be her ideal version of a “strong woman”, she feeds into the toxicity and mournfulness projected by others. Stray our Pieces accurately describes the identity crisis that comes with growing up and bearing children — growing from a naive child to an aware adult and then becoming an empowered adult.
These rites of passage are what connects Gloria to all the other adult characters, yet, in this book, they all either conform to the pressures of “traditional” social norms or choose to escape from maturity in various ways. Instead of filling her head with “I wanted to” or “I didn’t”, Gloria needed to reevaluate her approach to life, and become “the adhesive” between herself and her son David.
Instead of “trying to soften [her] voice so that it didn’t sound like [she] was annoyed” when speaking with David or wishing he would “suck it the fuck up”, she needed to choose to be an active participant in her development as well as in the development of her son. Only when David comes home from being ridiculed by his friends on a bus does Gloria move on from pity to sympathy and, eventually, admiration. Graff shows us that empty words mean nothing, and, as David says, “True courage…means letting your enemies see your weakness as a reflection of the weakness in them,” demonstrating the power of vulnerability.
Is there weakness in vulnerability or is that just a false narrative? Does coddling and sympathy really risk encouraging a “fragile emotional state?” Stray our Pieces suggests not; rather, this book imposes that the “suppressing of our instincts” may be at fault. Graff’s conclusion in Stray our Pieces leaves Gloria and David with new coping mechanisms and emphasizes on the importance of communication— and that sometimes the process is more important than the immediate result. Gloria’s self reflection allows her to become the person she always wanted to become: independent from her husband, Daryl, a survivor of her mother’s criticism, and in control of her future.
Graff’s novel is self-aware; he understands the complexities of maternal protection instincts and inadequacy. He develops his characters with so much emotion and flare that practically every moment is filled with drama and a sense of personal tragedy. Although we may feel “utterly alone in the universe,” Stray our Pieces assures us that, in fact, we do have “a bit more in common” than we believe. We are all at a loss together; we can become “the burden” we so despise. If we truly are everything we loath in the universe, then let us accept our identities and grow rugged— “would the risk be worth it?” For maybe then we would feel in control again.
Readers will engage in this book in a conversation regarding the keys to self-security– moral integrity and emotional maturity– as well as addressing ours fears of inadequacy and loneliness. Graff’s novel allows us to join his characters in a journey to refine our moral compasses, to guide our actions towards healthier and self-fulfilling alternatives.
Henry Figueroa is a Senior Adolescent Education major with a concentration in English at SUNY Plattsburgh. He is originally from the Bronx, New York. Henry is a Writing Tutor and an Academic Personal Tutor in the Learning Center, a Kickboxing Instructor for the Fitness Center, an Associate at the Feinberg Library, and a Community Advocate for SUNY Plattsburgh. This previous summer, he was an Orientation Leader for SUNY Plattsburgh’s Department of Student Involvement and worked with the incoming Class of 2023. He hopes to create a massive non-profit community center in the South Bronx.