“The Great Deschmutzing,” the first story in Ben Hoffman’s chapbook collection, Together, Apart, begins with a gut-punch: “The first thing I want you to know is that none of us miss you.” The narrator, here, is speaking to her recently deceased father, in her heart and mind a failure. The same day he died, her husband left her, maybe this time for good. And to make conditions even worse, her teenage daughter, Marvel, has taken up a new hobby, called giving backseat hand jobs; her other daughter, Ellie, has received a “tramp stamp” that may or may not be real; and her newly acquired dog, Houdini, an unwanted hand-me-down from her father, won’t stop shitting inside the house. The second sentence in the story is a head-punch: “In life, Dad, you specialized in delusion (your own, mostly, but others’ too), so I want to nip in the bud any notions of loss.” This is angry, painful stuff. And so goes the rest of the collection. Hoffman’s fiction is one of cruelty and trauma, loss and pain, desperate attempts at redemption. Neither heroes nor villains, his characters live in that purgatorial and immeasurably more believable space between good and bad, ecstatic and despondent. A space between “together” and “apart.”
One could label Together, Apart “lower-middle-class modernism.” This is a term that Mark McGurl uses in his book, The Program Era, to describe “the large body of work … that most often takes the form of the minimalist short story, and is preoccupied more than anything else with economic and other forms of insecurity and cultural anomie.” Together, Apart is composed of minimalist short stories about characters who, though not explicitly lower-middle-class (Hoffman omits the bills and receipts), struggle against lower-middle-class insecurities: alcoholism, domestic abuse, obesity, teenage pregnancy … Also, the stories are set in places like Pennsylvania. This is not, however, to say that Together, Apart belongs to that ever-growing paper mountain called “Bad Carver.” Unlike overeducated writers who like to ‘slum it’ with undereducated characters because it’s more authentic that way, Hoffman is neither condescending nor moralizing. His characters are too believably fucked up for that. Take, for example, this portrait of Mark, the absent and alcoholic father from the last story in the collection, “Three and a Half Paths to Happiness.” Mark recently mailed his son a birthday present, a self-help book, and he keeps saying he’ll visit soon to celebrate, but his wife, the narrator, doesn’t really believe him:
In the kitchen, the phone rang. It was Mark, and in that rushed, overexcited tone he adopted whenever his blood alcohol level came dangerously close to zero, he told me everything: he was staying in a motel outside of Asheville, and he hadn’t had a drink in two weeks, and he was on his way to come see us. When he asked if Ricky had gotten his gift, and if he liked it, he sounded astonished at himself, at what he’d been capable of, like a child who’s brought home his first A on a spelling test after three years in second grade.
This and other equally astounding portraits in the collection both tug close and push away the reader. Hoffman’s characters are at once sympathetic and repulsive. Maybe they grew up in Denis Johnson’s world.
Together, Apart is a uniquely shaped slim collection. The first and last stories are short stories proper. The four in between could be called flash fiction. Such (s)pacing makes for a musical experience; reading Together, Apart chronologically is sort of like listening to a song that begins with a mighty course, follows with four quick verses, then closes with a different mighty course. Also, the (s)pacing demonstrates Hoffman’s dexterity. Whether factual or not, I get the sense while reading these stories that Hoffman shaped them with confidence and control. His imagery is precise and his rhythm intuitive. Here is the narrator of “The Great Deschmutzing” recalling to her recently deceased father the day her mother abandoned them both:
“Be a good girl,” Mom told me, as if I had been being something else my first eleven years. “And don’t take after your father,” she said. “You don’t want to end up sad and alone.” … She held my chin loosely, like it was a cup of coffee gone cold, drawing it away from her lips, looking for a place to set it down. Outside her taxi honked. When she opened the door, the world was so full of wind I imagined she was jumping out of an airplane.
That simile, “like it was a cup of coffee gone cold,” combined with such a brutal return of the real, “Outside the taxi honked,” is agonizing. What a way to depict abandonment! And this leads us to the major thematic concerns of Hoffman’s collection: abandonment, absence, presence as absence, being together and being apart. The characters in Hoffman’s collection are always leaving others or being left behind, sometimes mercilessly, sometimes clumsily. Each story shows their attempts, however messy, to recover, make sense, punish, heal.
Together, Apart won the 2012 Origami Zoo Press Chapbook Contest, and in my opinion (though of course I neither have the evidence nor the experience to justify such a claim), it deserved that award—or at least some award. The collection is one I could talk on and on about; there’s so much to it. Have I mentioned that it’s also funny? Have I mentioned it’s a sharp critique? A potential trouble with the collection is that Hoffman, like Gary Lutz, writes often from the perspective of women—mothers, in particular—so any readers opposed to such a gesture, be warned. That can of worms aside, though (I don’t think this review is the proper place to open it), Together, Apart might very well break your heart.
Together, Apart, by Ben Hoffman. Origami Zoo Press. 50 pages. $8.00, paper.
Gavin Tomson is the recent winner of The Dalhousie Review‘s inaugural short story contest. Writing is upcoming in Weijia Quarterly.