Monday, August 19, 2019

BLACK LIGHT: STORIES, raw gobbets of the debut author's psychic flesh

Kimberly King Parsons

Vintage Books
$15.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 6* of five

The Publisher Says: With raw, poetic ferocity, Kimberly King Parsons exposes desire’s darkest hollows—those hidden places where most of us are afraid to look. In this debut collection of enormously perceptive and brutally unsentimental short stories, Parsons illuminates the ache of first love, the banality of self-loathing, the scourge of addiction, the myth of marriage, and the magic and inevitable disillusionment of childhood.

Taking us from hot Texas highways to cold family kitchens, from the freedom of pay-by-the-hour motels to the claustrophobia of private school dorms, these stories erupt off the page with a primal howl—sharp-voiced, acerbic, and wise.


My Review
: Don't start this read if you're not ready to go there. You know the "there" I mean, that there that Gertrude Stein railed against not being there in Oakland, California, circa 1920. Or today, for all I know or care. The there you're going with Author Parsons is the there that we try hard to deal with each in our separate ways, the there that we hate but need. You're not going alone. You might, in fact, prefer solitude on the trip, but by definition, reading is an accompanied silence. Like a playlist of stuff you can't remember liking when you were twenty but comes up when you enter the year you turned twenty into YouTube's maw.

As is my wont, I will use the time-honored and very efficient Bryce Method to view the stories as they come.

Guts is the reminiscences of a plus-size substance abuser about her handsome doctor lover (or is he, is their glancing connection, a product of her unfilled, bottomless needs?). It's sad, it's poignant, it's a window into the heart of someone who quite simply will not accept any positive event in her life—she looks for the lightning bolt in every cloud but ignores the gleaming of the silver lining. I want to box her ears for her. I recognize my fellow impostor-syndrome sufferer. She is an annoying twidgee. She needs the calm, practical doctor to open her mind, her body, and her psyche with invasive maneuvers she cannot evade. 3.5 stars

In Our Circle asks if PTSD is fixable: "When they let me out, I was just as mad as when I went in, only fatter and too lazy to exercise my wrath. Plus, I'd shaved off my eyebrows for no real reason, and what grew back was fine and blond and seemed to endear the world to me. I'd done the work and passed their tests, but my mind was still snarled." I'm guessing not. 4 stars

Glow Hunter is a coming(!)-of-age tale set in the Texas I did not want to grow up in, a part that was poor and trapped and ugly inside and out. These girls are just on the brink of making their biggest discoveries about life, these two little lives just exactly like every other little life are about to get a whole new dimension from their first psychedelic experience:
Bo is always dangling new universes, places she says are hidden in plain sight. I already feel high when she's around—giddy, tingles on my scalp. Once, I let her drag me to a trailer park psychic. A woman in a leotard told me my aura was dingy, that I could pay her extra to hose it off with her mind. I've told Bo I don't want to turn into a fractal elf or watch my hands pool into liquid rainbows. She tells me not to worry, that with mushrooms we'll be us, only better. She calls this my Summer of Yes. "Imagine everything slightly dazzling," she says, "real life with a glow."
Bo and I weren't exactly friends in school—we were polite. It was Jeff who shoved us together. Bo, this strange girl who made abysmal grades and covered her arms in highlighter filigree. She'd wait in the library while Jeff and I did homework, cutting holes in her clothes or vandalizing desks with her bizarre poems. Sometimes the two of them would take a break and go out to her car to get high. I'd study spitefully, prepare to kick Jeff's ass on whatever test. They'd come back stoned and giddy, sticky heat radiating. I'd never smelled sex before. I could have stormed off, but I didn't—I'd sit there wallowing in the hot tang of them, not used to being in such proximity to what I wanted.
Jeff kissed me once, when we were thirteen. I'd just beaten him at some video game—obliterated his high score—and I thought he was mad until he lunged, openmouthed, and hugged me with his whole body. I memorized the shape of that moment, and then I pulled away. I laughed and laughed. He showed me what I was, without meaning to. He was all fat tongue and dumb want, his dick like a dog in the room, begging for attention.
I'm working Bo with my hands. This goes on in such a way that I can leave and come back to it. I take breaks, visit my childhood bedroom in my mind, sit in a comfy chair in my dead grandmother's knocked-down house. Helping Bo is a noble and difficult task, like trying to jerk off a beam of light.
She's due for a heartbreak, our narrator; Bo couldn't be less of a lesbian if she practiced all night. But the curves of these moments will always be the forms she beats her life's shapes to mirror. Bo, Jeff...shadows whose blackness will define her light places always. 5 stars

The Animal Part talks about the awful way boys away from home make their friendships work. One night's ghost story at camp becomes a bid for freedom from the hard stuff kids must think about, like survival in the pack, like finding an identity. For such a short tale, no more than five hundred words, this brings home our essential difference from females. It doesn't surprise me that Author Parsons has sons. 3.5 stars

"What's worth happening happens in deep woods. Or so my daughter tells me." That's how Foxes starts. This is an amazing story. The story behind its creation, via Publishers Weekly, is one you should know: it's here, someone tell me if there's a paywall please.

Then go back and read "Foxes" again.

The marriage that produced the daughter was between the youthful narrator and an older fool, one with a little bit of money and a lot of crass. They're both people with whom I share nothing but the right to trial by a jury of one's peers. They come from the trailer park, and they're only out of it physically.
Whether it's nature or nurture, for people like the fool and me there is a long beat between learning something and knowing it. For us, answers come later, when we're far away from the question, if they come at all.
The narrator's drinking problem didn't stop the fool from leaving, far be it from him to stay and help or, who knows, maybe even fix the problem; and such is his self-absorption that leaving his daughter to our drunken narrator's tender mercies doesn't turn a gray hair on his scalp. The teachers and the shrinks all agree that the child's darkness is to be accepted if not encouraged, as she tries to make sense of her new world.
In the deepest, darkest woods, the knight cuts out a man's liver and tosses it to a fox. He cuts off two ears. Fox. Fox. He rips out a larnix as a snack for a wolf. Two larnixes!

"I believe it's pronounced larynx," I say gently, refilling my glass.
But in the end, what's the poor kid to do? Her daddy's somewhere else and not coming back and mama's not what you'd call all there either.
Very soon, he'll be dead in a painful, mundane way–a ruptured this, a burst that–and even more funds will arrive. How noble of him to provide such a hefty inheritance! I'm still working out that last part–right now it's more wish than plausible ending.
There's really not much sign of a life raft here; no wonder it took twelve years for the author to write it. She says, in the PW article linked above, of her process in writing "Foxes":
Finding my way into voice is always the part that takes me the longest, but usually once I’m there, the story comes in a steady reveal. “Foxes” was different–it stayed murky at every turn.
Plumbing that murk is at the heart of the stories Author Parsons looks to tell, or for sure the ones she looks to tell us here. It is a damnably tough job to reach that far inside and pull out anything that someone else wants to see. 5 stars

The Soft No does a lot to humanize Lubbock! Not. It's as bleak as any other wide-open space is, at least to those whose souls don't belong there; like Donna, the soft-no mom of the title. She's lost. She's actually home-bound by her sadness and her depression. It's not in the least bit a startling or new story. But it's very prettily told by a child just realizing that she must escape, she can not survive if she lets this "home" make her life into this miserable slog of thing that's destroyed her mother:
This dumb town is known for two things only: the Buddy Holly statue by the strip mall and the big, big sky. I hate that stupid statue—just seeing it sticks the whiniest songs in your head, makes you think of creepy, old-timey ghosts...The sky is all right, streaked pink and orange, but it's more like a lid than a promise. We're nowhere. If you wanted to leave you'd be driving forever, not toward anything, just away.
Don't kid yourself. Ten pages is enough to know how deep the water of life can recede yet leave bodies in their millions making nothing of their space in time. 5 stars

We Don't Come Natural to It is the saddest story yet: the longing of the left-out for belonging, being present in a way that matters to someone. The desperate denial of the body's needs, the equally desperate sensual overload of too much yes where it's hurtful and too much hurt where it's tender. The brisket-eating scene will break your heart. There isn't enough space in the Big City for all the nothing that the narrator, super-fat-shamer extraordinaire, needs:
Where I'm from, falling asleep is easy. You can hear your eyelashes swipe the pillow. There's so much nothing pouring in, you drift off listening to your choice.
The less there is of her self-starved body, the more she needs to have room, to carve space out of whatever is near and use the hole as proof she exists. 4 stars

The Light Will Pour In tells us a low-rent Lolita story, a happier ending with misery for all but no redemptive rescue for anyone. I can't help but feel that this narrator is the fool from "Foxes." He sounds like I imagine the fool would, he talks about settling in Matador, Texas, on the ass end of the Red River's dividing line between the Llano Estacado and the Great Plains; I'm goin' with my gut here, same guy.
Trish liked to pick at me with questions. She posed them in a kind of singsong innocence meant to cut. Like how had I lived such a long, long life without knowing the One True Way to pack a suitcase? And how much torrential rain had to fall before I'd hold up a newspaper or my jacket or something, anything, as a kind of gentlemanly shield over her? ... There is no excuse, when traveling by bus, for not knowing where the bus station is. But we'd show up somewhere in the dark and go one way for a burger and another for a place to sleep...I hated the thumpy road and the noisy brakes, the awful bodies shifting and coughing, all the unbearable people who weren't her.
Sounds like hell...but the ending is what makes it clear you're not just hearing the echoes of hell, you are spang in the middle of it. 3.5 stars

Into the Fold is an ugly, ugly story about adolescent girls at a posh boarding school. It made me very glad I'm no longer an adolescent. I was not a fan back then, now I'll cross the street to avoid adolescents. Horrible cliquish creatures without compassion or remorse.

The gist of the story is one girl's misery on the death of her favorite horse being transmuted into the hell on Earth that is being the one left out. Not just left out: being labeled as Weird. Social death; often enough actual death, this being the moment when people have adult-strength emotions without any compensatory perspective to allow reality to intervene between the pain of being Othered and realizing how little one actually cares. I really don't. 2.5 stars.

Black Light is the agony of First Love finishing before you're ready for it to. Especially bad for the burgeoning dyke in Nowhereland whose girl leaves her for Jesus. The. Absolute. Worst. And then your dirtbag older brother bugging you to share the inevitable Polaroid beaver shot with him...well, I ask you! Staying in bed for a good, long cry sounds good.
"Take it out" was what she said when I first got my hand in her. "Take it out so you can put it right back in." She was a flood, sopping. A girl like that can't last. A fleeting gleam. I don't know if there's a word for the ache of missing something when you still have it. I'd kiss her and taste my doom.
I don't have to look far to see the kind of woman she'll become—this town is bloated with them. Women who met their soul mate in youth group and got married young. Mission trips and the missionary position and grace before every meal. It's a life of pew PDA with the hubby, clapping on the downbeat, hating the sin, not the sinner. Hair spray, pot lucks, half a dozen kids. A big, fat scrapbooking habit.

Like that, but with basketball.
Her girl's a six-footer, a terrible player, but basketball led to Jesus, so it has to be excoriated. It can't be her, it surely can't be you; so basketball. And Jesus. All the things that are wrong with our fucked-up world. 4.5 stars

Fiddlebacks brings up That Memory...finding your parent(s) doing something mysterious, wrong...weird...and making talk-like sounds that don't mean a single thing to your kid-self. The peculiar noises, the off-putting sounds...and the sheer living, breathing energy of it...all put it into your memory forever. Bury it, deny it, whatever you need to do, but it's there. Set in another Panhandle/Llano Estacado town with nothing whatsoever going for it (except arachnids galore, like the venomous ones of the title), these three kids are coming of age this one dark and stormy night. Poor Mother, and by gawd poor old Stubbs! Ugly and dumb and unloved by his sweetie's spawn, he's never, ever gonna live this down. 4 stars

Starlite reveals the ugly truth about marriage: You got no idea what Kneecap, your husband, or Eyelash, your wife, get themselves up to when you're not around.
One shop sold only home theater equipment, another specialized in bespoke chinos—luxuries not meant for the guests who usually stayed here. Even the word "guests" felt wrong to Jill. Customers, maybe. Frequenters. This place was rock bottom for anybody, a good spot for bad decisions.
(The proverbial hot-sheets hotel, the no-tell motel. Wonder what Jill and Rick's gettin' theyselves up to.) Might be you're happier that way. Could also be they got no notion of what it is you're up to...the messiness of being alive, the passionlessness of the quotidian, purple cabbage Thai dishes jumble against red beards, hairy armpits, no one wins. 4.5 stars

There it is. This is what's kept Author Parsons busy the past twelve or so years. It's been a good, solid busy, as you can see. It's hard to imagine her finding the room inside herself to birth two kids! All this life, all these people, you end up feeling like your entire brain is swelling from their bad breath and farts.

I say go. You say...?

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