We read fiction to be who we’re not, if only for a few pages. And we don’t only do this when we read fiction. We do this, for example, when we pretend to be pregnant to befriend our Mormon ex-boyfriend’s wife. Or this is what one character does in “The Most Important Part of Being Fake-Pregnant,” the first of six stories in Kill Us on the Way Home, a fiction chapbook by Gwen Beatty. The chapbook is nineteen pages, with each story fewer than five pages, yet with each new story, one can fully become these imperfect characters, gaining more agency than the characters themselves have in their seemingly predetermined lives.
The fake-pregnant narrator of the first story thinks not of who she is, but “the woman that [she’s] not,” as her ex-boyfriend’s wife describes married life with her husband. “She told me exactly what my life would have been if I had been less like myself,” the narrator acknowledges, so she continues to be less like herself, continuing the fake-pregnancy for months. The narrator said no to her ex-boyfriend’s proposal weeks before he proposed to his current wife and because of this, she “always wondered what saying yes would have meant,” as she would have had to give up drinking and gambling, but maybe
it also would have meant money, and security, and maybe my only chance at boring love with a schedule and a coffee maker with a self-timer. I always wondered if I could have stomached a whole life like that. I always wondered what happens when people say yes to things.
This is the only non-horror story I can think of that could have the line, “He has a closet filled to the top with pregnant belly carcasses” and not make me think I misread it. In the hands of another author, a story with such an offbeat plot could have risked being too absurd, but with Beatty’s wry, matter-of-fact language, the lengths to which the narrator fakes her pregnancy are as believable as her papier-maché stomachs.
Many of the characters in Kill Us on the Way Home are in cars, for one reason or another. In “Phantom Limb,” two young men pay a cab driver to take them to parking lots where they shoot seagulls. Pete, who lost his arm in an accident, pays for the cab fare with money left to him by his dead grandfather to pay for college. But college isn’t his destination now, with the money almost gone. Beatty’s characters, whether driving or being driven, have equally no control of their futures, no control of where they’re going.
“We would drive until we hit dead ends,” says the narrator of “Knots,” who, with his college drop-out friend, drives around and pushes over trees. They do this to feel some sort of power, purposeless in their hometown. In an outrageously quotable line, the narrator of lays it all on the table:
I was still looking down the barrel of my mundane Midwestern childhood and I felt unreasonably resentful about the whole thing. All I’d accomplished since everyone else left for college was memorize the first hundred digits of pi. I bragged about it in the same way and for the same reasons that hot girls brag about drinking straight whiskey.
This line is one of countless examples in these twenty pages of the precision with which Beatty crafts these stories’ sentences. Take, for example, the first line of Kill Us on the Way Home’s sixth and final story, “Sphinx Moth.” It starts: “Our mother was dying and my sister and I were on a game show that wouldn’t quite save her.” Thinking about just that short, five-letter word, quite, can break your heart. Such pathos in so few words. Yet the heaviness of this first sentence is evened out with humor in others. Later, April, the narrator, describes the game show as a simple game with “the ‘match your partner’s answer to this question’ style of The Newlywed Game, except written by a sweaty schmuck who had been to Wisconsin once.”
And even in this story, the characters are who they are not, as April, the narrator, lies about who, between the two sisters, “has the drunkest, most embarrassing moment,” writing, “Me.” This entertaining lie makes the two sisters popular with the game show crowd. But from the first line, the reader knows the game show is not enough to save the characters’ mother. Here, too, is the Midwestern defeatism of the earlier stories.
I don’t often think of books as objets d’art, but this was a book I studied. Like the sentences in the stories within, the book itself is precisely constructed, too, folded and stapled, with lines cut through the title and author’s name on the cover and an X splitting open the first blank page. Even the publication information at the beginning of the book, traditionally boring, is pithy and personalized, highlighting the playful ethos of its publisher, Passenger Side Books. Kill Us on the Way Home is powerful and pocket-sized, a presentation of how perfectly fiction can work in this chapbook length, how really, on the way home, as short as it is, there’s more than enough time.
Kill Us on the Way Home, by Gwen Beatty. Hazel Green, Wisconsin: Passenger Side Books, October 2015. 19 pages. $5.00, paper.
Zachary Kocanda lives in Muncie, Indiana, where he is a master’s student in creative writing at Ball State University. He has also reviewed for Mid-American Review.
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