The inhabitants of In My Other Life
--bartenders and waitresses, drug counselors, teachers, many with histories of narcotics use or minor criminality--come to engaging life in Joan Silber's serene, understated prose. She renders even the few fantastic occurrences in her first short-story collection in simple, serviceable phrases, like aluminum cutlery--not the stuff you'd bring out for company, but the battered, durable everyday kind. That Silber can sometimes make a kite or a suspension bridge out of knives and forks is one reason for reading these stories, which in other ways may sound like old New Yorker
fiction: short on incident, long on tranquil recollection. In "Without Ellie," a young woman remembers the night that she failed to save the life of her mentally disturbed stepsister, who broke away from her on a Manhattan street one night and was later found beaten and stabbed. In "Partners," a Florida travel agent receives a phone call in the wake of Hurricane Andrew from her old friend and business partner, for many years a drug runner and shady character. Rae tells Nathan about her sojourn in the basement during the hurricane, and, from the safety of middle age, recalls the "tremendous things" they had undergone in their youths: a failed drug buy in La Paz, the new gun that made Nathan "silky and confident."
In fact, they had worn her out, those exciting troubles. She was weather-beaten when they were over. But down in the laundry cellar, with the pipes shaking, she was just as glad to be weather-beaten. All the disasters of her life (and Nathan was far from the worst) seemed reassuring, the grislier the better, she was glad to have them to remember. The trouble stored in her was like a white noise, another roar, to whatever was outside.
At their most oblique, Silber's stories can read like the rambling monologues of transients in bus terminals--the book's opener, "Bobby Jackson," has a climax so soft that it's easy to miss--but at their best, they are shrewd and revelatory, well worth reading twice. --Regina Marler
--This text refers to the
From Publishers Weekly
Troubled, middle-aged New Yorkers ponder their wild youthful selves and their belated or botched second chances in these 12 accessible, moving tales. Novelist Silber (Household Words; In the City) imagines households of mostly decent, though emotionally scarred, women and men trying to cope with kids, difficult exes or grown siblings. Some of these reflective characters can hardly believe they've outlived their perilous youth. The loquacious narrator in "Bobby Jackson" reminisces about his days as a downtown bartender and smack addict ("I was swimming around in fulfilled wishes"). He's survived to become a divorced realtor with a daughter, but fears his pals from the old days have fared far worse. In "Lake Natasink" (first published in the New Yorker), Patty and her lover, Charlotte, prepare to move with their adopted baby from New York City to a farmhouse upstate; "Ordinary" follows these same three characters to their not-quite-paradisial country life. Here and in the poignant "Commendable," Silber authentically depicts the affections and troubles of unconventional couples, making accurate, sensitive prose look easy. She can also sharply portray dysfunctional couples, or uneasy relationships among exes. Devotees of Alice Munro will find in Silber a simpler take on some of Munro's favorite themes: the revised expectations of middle age; the fading and nuanced traumas of adolescence; the lingering hangover from the hippie era. "What Lasts," a tale of volatile newlyweds, contains some of the book's most striking, skeptical writing, exemplary of the keen, expressive sense of the improbable, of dumb luck and ill luck, and of unlikely recovery that makes Silber's stories so warmly convincing. Agent, Geri Thoma at the Elaine Markson Literary Agency. (May)
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