Shane and I are getting amped about the event coming up at Harvard Bookstore on November 3rd: a discussion on the Best American Short Stories 2010. I’ve been collecting these anthologies since I lived in Georgia because I appreciate the range of stories each year’s collection contains; the main common thread is that they’re the best. The bookshelf above my bed is lined with them. I’ve bought copies at Harvard Bookstore, Barnes & Noble, Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson airport, Salvation Army. Something about their covers, all of my defenses and better judgment go out the window. So you can imagine the willpower it took to wait for my next paycheck to finally get my copy of this year’s regal-looking black and gold collection. And you can imagine my giddy delight when I saw that Steve Almond was not only the first story in the book, but also one of the two contributors scheduled to discuss the collection next month. It’s no secret: We love Steve Almond.
For those of you not as excited, I’m here to give you a little help, review-style. That’s right, now you’re excited.
“Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s Nowhere to Go” by Danielle Evans
I read this story out of order because of its title. It’s intriguing in that it begins a narrative before you ever read the first word. Originally published in A Public Space, Evans’ story doesn’t waste time, starting out: “Georgie knew before he left that Lanae would be fucking Kenny by the time he got back to Virginia.” Immediately in this opening sentence, I was on Georgie’s side. Though we find out that Georgie and Lanae are officially over before he even goes to basic training, we buy his sense of destiny, that he and Lanae are meant to be, so any ending must be temporary. Our first clue that Georgie’s choices are to blame for their inability to come together successfully comes on the second page: “He could not remember a time before they were friends, but she’d had enough time to get married and divorced and produce a little girl before he thought to kiss her for the first time, only a few months before he’d gotten his orders.”
But these clues don’t quite say, “I told you so,” until you’re far too involved in the story. We don’t realize how fucked up our pilot is until we’re already in the air. We end up committing the same crimes that Georgie does: ignoring the signs that something’s not right, that it’s time to turn back, that the negative consequences are inevitable.
Throughout the story, Georgie witnesses many different kinds of deaths: His father, the sisters in Iraq, his relationship with Lanae, the image of himself as someone who has made a difference – if only from Esther’s perspective – or as someone who is capable of making a difference. His journey marks his confrontation with each of these deaths, highlighting his incapability of accepting them, of moving on. He is afraid of confrontation and ends up doing many things that are much worse instead.
The main confrontation he avoids is the one with himself. He can’t amend being even peripherally responsible for the girls’ death, wishing instead that “it was our guys who did it, some psycho who lost it.” He can’t bear having been a domino in the process to the family’s end: “I don’t want to think about them coming for her family because we made them talk. I don’t want to be the reason they did her like that.”
When he returns home, he takes any opportunity to create a new identity for himself, someone he can relate to, someone he can give to others to relate to. He begins babysitting Lanae’s daughter to remind Lanae of how good she is with him, to show her what’s supposed to be. When Esther begins calling him daddy to strangers, he brushes it off as the product of a harmless child’s imagination: “They were always going places that encouraged fantasy.” But the narrator doesn’t define whose fantasy is being encouraged, though Esther’s is implied. As the story progresses, we realize – too late – that it’s Georgie’s fantasies that have been in overdrive all along.
He spends the majority of his time trying to create a heroic image of himself for Annie, the manicurist at the nail salon. If he can just get one person to believe he’s good, maybe he is.
Georgie’s ultimate punishment comes when every lie he’s told or encouraged throughout the story falls on five-year-old Esther’s shoulders. We are snapped out of fantasy-land along with Georgie when Lanae slams the door in his face. Though it’s been over all along, this seems to be the first moment when there is no more room for his fantasies. He is left with nothing to grab onto: “He kept standing there, long after the porch light went off, not so much making an argument as waiting for an answer.” He hasn’t been able to deal with the answers he’s been ignoring throughout the story and even in the end, when it’s become painfully obvious, he cannot bear it.
This story covers many layers of war and its effects, the difficulty of being reintroduced to society, of finding a place for the person who returns, along with all of the discoveries they’ve made about themselves while away. Evans, through beautiful language and a quiet build up of irrevocable wrongdoing, creates an inevitable world. There is nowhere for this narrator to go, no matter how far or strategically he runs.
Evans, Danielle. “Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s Nowhere to Go.” Best American Short Stories 2010. Ed. Richard Russo. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010. 81.