Denny Ring is a
lover, a thief, a go-between, a drug user, a pet
cause; he'll take your money or your heart,
depending on his mood. But what Denny does
best is give the other characters in Alice
Mattison's collection of linked stories, set in
and around New Haven, Conn., something to
Daisy, a 40-ish community college professor,
has an obsessive, illicit romance with him,
though he's 20 years her junior. Her
boyfriend, Pekko, a yogurt-store owner with a
taste for lost causes, takes it as his personal
mission to keep Denny out of trouble. Tom,
an English major turned carpenter, gives
Denny a lift one snowy night and almost
doesn't live to regret it. And so on.
Denny's not the only character who rotates
through these stories: The narrator of one will
pop up as the girlfriend, parent, brother or
best friend in another. Characters develop in
unexpected and oblique ways; you're inside
someone's head in one story, then looking at
them from a third person's point of view in
the next. Family dynamics take four or five
stories to develop. This does hold a reader's
attention; each reappearance adds another
piece to the puzzle of personalities, and you
begin to look for favorites. (I took a shine to
silly Tom and his robust girlfriend, Ida, a big
blond with a sensible outlook and a turquoise
Sometimes Mattison gets pointlessly clever
with the linking, as when one story turns up as
the plot of a piece of fiction written by a
character in another story. Still, the structure
of the book does make a larger point about
the interconnectedness of lives -- even in a
place as gritty as Mattison's New Haven, a
town where working-class laundromats and
seedy student rentals stand next to the comfier
houses of a socially conscious, existentially
challenged middle class. There's a price tag
attached to middle-class status in Mattison's
world; these teachers, social workers and
intellectuals can't seem to stay emotionally
afloat, no matter how much social work and
family time they put in.
Mattison's writing doesn't get fancy. She
prefers a deceptive plainness punctuated
occasionally by a moving moment, as when a
derelict tells a soup kitchen volunteer about
the luckiest day of his life: "It was hard to go
to bed, because until he went to bed he was
living in the same day with his luck, and
leaving it was like leaving a room with a friend
in it." But these moments arrive too rarely,
and so too many of these stories fall flat and
hollow, like footsteps on dry ground, leaving
only faint impressions of themselves behind. -- Salon
Mattison is a charmer. It's a joy to tune into her characters' thoughts. -- NY Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"Find stories with action, not just love and thinking," a dance teacher tells her students in this endearing collection of intersecting stories, and that direction sums up Mattison's (Hilda and Pearl) modus operandi. Her characters are in constant motion, dancing their way through their days and predicaments, entering and exiting these 15 stories like people in a slightly ironic musical comedy. The cast includes two young women who are high-school teachers (and their boyfriends past and present), three grown brothers, a yogurt-shop owner, two social workers, various dogs and a fey drifter named Denny, who slips in and out of windows and the other characters' lives. Set in and around New Haven, Conn. (in a soup kitchen, a dance studio, a lawyer's office and a city park; in downtown apartments and a cottage on the Long Island Sound), these stories are full of lifelike interruptions, distractions and unexpected turns. If Mattison's spry language and light touch belie her careful framing of events, they also blithely pave the way for her finely hewn endings, which in almost every story capture the unspoken charm and mystery of a character or a moment.
Mattison's clever "intersecting" story collection reminds us that John Guare's famed six degrees of separation fall wide of the mark, it's two or three degrees at most. The characters in this badly titled work (the worst thing about it) live interwoven lives in New Haven, Connecticut, with the troubled figure of juvenile delinquent Denny Ring popping up in most stories. As lover, friend, grandson, employee, and menacing con artist, Denny profoundly affects men and women, young and old, while revealing less and less of himself. Is he angel or demon? The multiple viewpoints add depth and complexity to the characters, and at least two readings are needed to appreciate the nuances of Mattison's tight prose. A poet (Animals, 1979) and novelist (Hilda and Pearl, Morrow, 1995), Mattison published several of these stories in The New Yorker, Glimmer Train, and the New England Review. She's someone to watch and, most certainly, to read. Highly recommended. Jo Manning, Miami Beach, Fla.
Fifteen interlinked stories in a salty, tough-minded third collection from Mattison (Great Wits, 1988; The Flight of Andy Burns, 1993).
Mattison, also a novelist (Hilda and Pearl, 1995, etc.), has a mordant eye for the details of our wary, confused search for love, and she focuses it here on the uncertain efforts of a group of twenty- and thirty-somethings in New Haven, Connecticut, to connect. There's Tom, who still carries a crush for Ida, a teacher he had in high school. Their sporadic courtship, from tentative dates to the decision on whether or not to marry, threads through the book. Kitty, Ida's roommate, finds herself struggling to jettison her still strong feelings for an old lover, and is not much helped in the process by the lukewarm attentions of a new one. The well-intentioned John, a contractor and Tom's brother-in-law, has his hands full dealing with a turbulent family, including his brothers Eugene (who works with the local down-and-out) and Cameron (an obnoxious, quarrelsome lawyer), and with his aged father. There's also Marta, a dance teacher who finds herself increasingly attracted to Marie, the mother of one of her teenage students, who in turn is dating the nasty Cameron. The large cast weaving through these tales might, in less deft hands, prove unmanageable. But Mattison keeps a keen focus here on the ways in which we court, seduce, rely on, or betray one another, and the stories, many told in the first person, explore our amatory confusions with frankness and vigor. There's not much interior musing here, for Mattison relies on a direct narrative of events and the complex, if ambiguous, messages that even simple interchanges can carry. Nor is there much sense of place.
Still, if the stories sometimes seem exceedingly spare and even grim, they are nonetheless, at their best (as in "The Dance Teacher," "Apples," and "Sebastian Squirrel"), both moving and entirely convincing.
Read an Excerpt
TODAY WAS THE happiest day of my life so far, even though it didn't include actual sex or the World Series, and even though as usual people are suffering in places famous for trouble and also of course in every other place. I live with my parentsto save moneyalthough as my mother puts it I am a grown man. I just filled my parents' dishwasher after dinner, wondering as I turned it on whether it really was the happiest daybecause other days had more potentialbut it was. I think that until today the happiest day was the day I went camping with my first girlfriend and we saw two deer and swam nude and made love on top of the sleeping bag, near the fire. Earlier happy days mostly included home runs. Dinner tonight was only meat loaf. Lunch was pizza. The happy part was in between.
I went to Wilbur Cross High School, in New Haven, where Ida Feldman, who had an old lady's name but was young and blond, though fat, was my English teacher junior year. One day, an administrator was talking on the public-address system, and he said, "Any seniors wishing to take the SATs should make an appointment with their penis." Ms. Feldman flopped forward on her desk and laughed, her arms wide, her hair spread out, as if she'd fallen off a dock with surprise and lay helpless in the water. Her face pressed into her grade book, so when she picked up her head there was a groove on her cheek from the spiral binding.
I loved her from then on. I majored in English at Southern Connecticut, almost in her honor, even though everyone was majoring in business. Two different deans asked me, "What are you going to do with that?" Whenever I visited Ms. Feldman she remembered me, but Iwasn't as important to her as what she was doing right then. One time, she was trying to get a pregnant girl to stay in school and at least think about an abortion. "I wouldn't say it to her, Tom," she said quickly. "But I have to think of a way to let it cross her mind."
I hadn't thought much about abortion.
"But it's her baby," I said.
"If I wanted her to abort her after-school job at Wendy's," she said, "I wouldn't be crying about it."
Excerpted from Men Giving Money, Women Yelling.