Sometimes, maybe what's bad for you is good for you, as in both
the argument (half-right) of that recent contrarian advice book and in the raw material of the popular culture it seems to want to vindicate or justify. Personally, I get very sad and depressed at thrift stores, but mostly when I am not finding exactly what I wanted, or did not know I wanted, even needed. I am dishonest that way, impatient, sorry–when I am not greedy and happy. So it is with the stories of unrelenting sorrow and shabby human circumstances artfully told by Mariah K. Young in her prizewinning short story collection, Masha'allah and Other Stories, a city-full of fatalism and a quiet challenge to it by way of what is better than only just good for you and me: empathy, Her sociological insights–if that isn't exactly the wrong, tedious phrase book reviewers reach for–through vignettes and characters build on convincing beginnings and middles because the end is already so clear.
The equation here adds up through the experiential, and easy to figure with the strong writing by a young writer. I took seriously the epigram, from Khalil Gibran, “Work is love made visible.” Pretty grim, considering the locale of these realistic yet still poetic stories of urban working life in the impoverished socio-economic margins (sorry, there it is again) of the Bay Area. No doubt the easiest blurb here is “Hip-hop Raymond Carver,” but then you could do a lot worse and, in some ways these stories are both less (in terms of story arc) and much, much more, in their skill at connecting all the extremely loose ends of people's lives.
The first very short one, a brief overture to these arguably interconnected stories, recounts the famous mid-Eighties funeral of Felix “the Cat” Mitchell, the legendary one-time drug kingpin from East Oakland whose passing was memorialized with a horse-drawn carriage and a parade of limousines. Surely it introduces the sad politics and psychology of despair, with the voice of a then-young spectator introducing expectations even as they are shot down by this community's children's view of their future: “The Rolls kept rolling by, and I caught our reflection in a passing window.”
There is little solace after we see the Rolls Royce and its dead passenger pass by, through
the mean streets of the non-touristic environs where work and dwell the criminal, the criminally exploited, the strugglers in the underground economy sitting there in all its necessary obviousness. Nobody here has much of a job, career, yet they all work too hard, for too little. In a winning story called “Studies in Entropic Botany,” a kid teaches himself science to learn how to grow weed for the emerging medical marijuana market, risking vengeance from a local gang. It's also a love story, with his arguably more middle-class Lake Merritt girlfriend of course also at risk. As vengeance arrives, she considers her experiment in slumming: “I had only known this kind of fear through empathy, listening to shouts and shots off in the distance. A spasm went through me, the sensation of blood flow flooding through veins, forcing constriction, the muscle catching hold of a nerve an jangling it back and forth, the whole homeostatic system trying to reorder itself. I wanted out of that garage. I wanted to stop shaking. I wanted to go home.” As the stoner girlfriend, everybody here is so close, yet so far away from the presumed legitimacy of the straight life. She may be able to leave. Others can't.
Don't look for any easy moralizing in these stories, difficult moralizing, any moral instruction at all. Their immediate and tension-creating ethos and experience is in the narrative, the dialogue, the mostly first-person or close third-person perspectives of the pot grower and his girlfriend, a cab driver in whose taxi a child is born, a Filipino kid whose parents are undocumented, a hair stylist who, in between cleaning houses for her Realtor sister, invites clients for cuts. What a scene, her homegirls and homeboys using this “open house,” hustling the hustler.
Conclusions here are foregone, and mostly they are gone, missing, predetermined in their absence. My favorite story, if perhaps also the clearest and most traditionally developed, unites in loneliness, despair and shared victimization two people who deserve so much better from a cruel system: a single, brokenhearted young woman bar tender and a restaurant events manager. He is a Hindi immigrant man struggling to support his faraway family. Like his co-worker, he's been betrayed, abandoned. In some kind of perverse act of moral
recompense, their also-shared place in a hierarchy of exploitation complicates their relationship further. As in all of these darkly honest tales, there is no end to it. “The Front of the House” is also one of the best stories I've read about working in the low-end food service/party or catering biz, frequently a nightmare of human misbehavior and calculated rip-off where, it seems, you get by only if you rip off somebody else.
One of the most viscerally successful stories is about the cruelty necessary to support the political economy of illegal dog breeding, mostly for, yes, illegal dog fighting: sellers, customers, demand, call it what you will, with a deeply moving parallel story of caring (uncaring) for children. This is the most clearly symbolic story, and deeply rewarding.
I think Jim Houston, the legendary late California writer (Snow Mountain Passage, Continental Drift, The Men in My Life), in whose honor the good folk at Heyday published this new writer, would have been enthusiastic about Young's humane storytelling. Masha'allah is indeed the first winner of its James D. Houston Award. Jim is one of the best writers we should remember, and read, along with his wife Jeanne, author of the classic Farewell to Manzanar. So, some big honor, and deserved, for Mariah K. Young.
Naturally,this little book will be big in Northern California, but as portrayed in its Eric Drooker-like dark city nightscape, there is a vast and familiar universality too, for all of us, under our trudging feet, even as the constellations and those who arrange them, fool us into thinking we are dancing.
Masha'allah and Other Stories, Mariah K. Young, Heyday, 216 pgs., $15.00
Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy, on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.