Peek, by Paul Beckman. Boston, Massachusetts: Big Table Publishing, January 2015. 120 pages. $15.00, paper.
Picture a seven-year-old with a magnifying glass and a battalion of ants trooping along the sidewalk with contraband. The sun blazes down, a strong summer sun. Some of the ants burn up, some escape and immediately have regrets, while others stream off into lush grass, but all have exposed their essential tiny ant souls.
Paul Beckman wields such optical instruments as he sheds a short sharp light on character and story. The author’s curious and often careless characters quickly come into focus. Acts of spying, observing, snooping, inspecting, regarding, watching, and glancing find their way into most of the stories found in Peek, a perfect title for this humorous, touching, discomforting, and extremely intriguing collection.
It is necessary to begin with the author’s attention to the sense of sight, both the positive and negative aspects of “seeing” and “not seeing.” The title of this group of stories demands it. Even the first story is called “Peek.” Beckman begins this piece with the narrator telling the reader about his apartment complex where the residents spy on each other at a specific time of day, every day, five minutes tops. They take it seriously enough that at least one family member is charged with the duty. This narrator cherishes the commitment, and through him Beckman reveals one of his main threads throughout the collection: the tribulations of marriage and divorce.
He introduces us to Mirsky and Elaine in “Two Ships,” its title aptly co-opted here from Longfellow’s line, “ships that pass in the night.” They are married, but not happily, and the actions they take mirror each other, an Amtrak station being the location of “not seeing” what’s happening to them. This story shows off another feature of Beckman’s work, his dexterous use of wordplay. Also look at “Another Train Ride,” “Perception Rules, and “Separate But Equal,” to see how he explores language.
Other stories exploring the idea of “seeing/not seeing” include “Rattner Walking,” in which a man finds himself in a Beckman-imagined heaven where the main character wanders around old familiar places glimpsing people from his life standing on corners, in parks, and in front of “Wanda’s Palace of Sweets.” Another piece, “I Have This Condition,” deals with the concept of invisibility touching on a universal fear of not being seen by others, of being overlooked.
Beckman keeps going, taking us on a visit to the Jewish Home for the Aged in “The Most Gorgeous Daughter,” where the narrator begins to see the old ladies as their daughters, young and beautiful and desirable. This story is more about looking beneath what one actually can see with the physical eye to the possibilities and glory of past beauty. “Big Girl” is another story in which what one character can see, another cannot see, and in “Who Knew?” a spy is spied upon by the very person he is watching.
Beckman also plays with sound and smell. One of my favorites is “Brother Speak.” Here are two brothers whose interactions raise stakes and tension with each subsequent paragraph. Pure Beckman.
This is just a taste of what this author does with story and character. Because he wants to surprise the reader, play with you, shock you, make you laugh, make you think, I don’t want to write too much more. Read for yourself.
Gay Degani has had three flash pieces nominated for Pushcart consideration and won the 11th Glass Woman Prize. Pure Slush Books published her collection, Rattle of Want, in 2015 and Every Day Novels serialized her suspense novel, What Came Before in 2014. She blogs at Words in Place.