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Friday book review: Why does Lynne Barrett hate me?

September 30, 2011

Lynne Barrett

If I were world dictator Lynne Barrett would be locked in a room and forced to write one of her patented stories before being let out for brief periods of air and exercise.

One of the finest short story writers alive, Barrett has produced only three slim collections in 30 years. That’s criminal indolence, I say.

For a list of upcoming activities at the Florida Center for the Literary Arts, visit the center’s website. And mark your calendar: This year’s Miami Book Fair International runs Nov. 13-20.

Take her new collection, Magpies, published, like her previous books, The Land of Go (1988) and The Secret Names of Women (1999), by Carnegie Mellon University Press. It features a charmingly convoluted tale of murder, “The Noir Boudoir.” Three killings, by my count, plus a suicide, solved by a small town cop retired to Miami.

While “Noir Boudoir”  delivers on its mystery promise in spades — guns! a horse-racing scandal! a femme fatale! — it also delivers a tone-perfect portrait of the world of collectibles, those who deal in them and those who treasure them, often one and the same. The story provides an affecting portrait of a certain aspect of Miami Beach, and, beneath its more obvious action, it evokes a sense of sadness and loss at the inevitable passage of time.

That’s a lot of heavy lifting for one little tale, even if, at 32 pages, it’s the longest in the collection. And yet the prose never shows the strain. All the effort. all the sweat, goes on behind the scene somewhere.

Like many of us, Barrett is of a certain age these days, and yet in her opening story, Links, she displays an understanding of life, love and anxiety among the 21st century young that rings true in every precise detail.

A poor English major with literary ambitions goes to work at an Internet start-up. “Language this,” her boss says on her first day, by which he means rewrite it so it sounds better.

When she mentions to one of the 28-year-old founders that she is bothered by random typos on billboards, he diagnoses her with “Attention Surplus Disorder.” The symptoms? “You can sit still for hours on end, working on something. I’ve seen that. You probably read whole books –”

Of course she does, leaving her handicapped with old-fashioned notions, like, “Attention is love.” She watches Cary Grant in “ardent” pursuit of Doris Day or Ingrid Bergman, wondering if relations between men and women were ever really like that.

Men of her generation “simply allow themselves to be in our vicinity, exhibiting a mixture of fear and disdain. They never say what they want. Instead, at some point, often so late at night that we’re too tired to care anymore, we lurch together. And next day they panic.”

This portrait of romance in the digital age, in other hands, might feel cynical or dispiriting, but Barrett writes with such inventive insight, with such respect for her characters, even the most flawed, that it comes across as clear, compassionate and, for me at least, exhilarating.

The second story, “One Hippopotomus,” is composed almost entirely of conversation in bed as a woman falls in love as her new boyfriend, Carlos, a Chilean immigrant devoted to the Baltimore Orioles. “He’s thirty-seven and never married,” she thinks, “there’s undoubtedly something wrong with him…”

And yet as they lie there, exchanging little stories, you can feel the connections catching, like the shuttle reaching out to dock with the space station. The story ends with a line that made me laugh out loud with delighted surprise — and it’s not a punchline.

All the stories in this too-short volume are like that. People of various backgrounds going about ordinary business, yet made luminous by the way Barrett presents them to us: A mercenary Miami Beach gossip columnist who coughs up a toad one day and makes a pet of it, or a simple Christmas gathering after the elderly mother has died.

Alas, the exquisite reading pleasure afforded by these tales is both heightened and dampened by the knowledge that there are only eight of them. What, I wonder, does Barrett do with her time? Has she no thought for me, waiting her impatiently like a literary junkie for the next fix?

If you attend Barrett’s reading at 7 p.m. at Books & Books Saturday, as I strongly urge you to do, please lobby her as vigorously as possible. Say: Write faster, Lynn. A nation turns its lonely eyes to you. Or at least I do (woo-woo-woo).

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 30, 2011 1:38 pm

    Okay, Chauncey, here goes another one on my impossible list. Thanks for telling us about her.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    September 30, 2011 3:49 pm

    She’s the real deal, Duff. Her earlier collections are very fine, too.

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