Like a Champion, by Vincent Chu, is a collection of short stories that could be written about your next-door neighbor. So when you peek through the blinds and glance at the house across the street, Fred—who works in finance, who just wants a drink at happy hour with Glen—could be living there. And next time as you pull into your driveway, and look to your left at the lady putting the garbage out, it may be Carlotta, who just got home from her strip mall boxing gym. Chu’s characters are all either lonely, failing at a job, trying to make their punches snap, or making sure someone eats their friend’s damn ambrosia salad at a cookout. And with his great use of humor and wit, Chu makes them feel more human, and likable, regardless of and sometimes due to their imperfections.
From the first page, Chu pulled me in with his pleasant voice for Fred from Finance:
“Oh, that would be a shame,” thought Fred. Maybe humans were born likable or not. Maybe at Pear Tree Industries and corporations all around the world, employees were naturally divided into haves and have-nots. Have likeability. Have not. Take Glen. Damn, that guy was likable.
Chu can tune his ear for sound quality in a sentence, repeating the words ‘have,’ ‘likeability,’ and ‘not.’ His prose also varies from long sentences to the short, curt ones that show humor and give Fred so much voice and characterization. All through the book, Chu shows how well he can do with internalization, and bringing voice to a character. Most impressive is the story titled “Recent Conversations,” where all twenty-one pages are direct messages between an unnamed man and a woman named Jane. Even though there is no internalization, we still get humor and tension when Jane doesn’t show for a date. We follow the main speaker saying, “Heading out now to Pretty Peas, just message me if you’re lost or running late or anything …” to Jane on June 1st saying, “Hey,” and all he replies is “What.” The time stamps do a lot for this piece. They allow for both clarity and tension, and make the scene when they end up trying to find each other exciting and climatic.
Chu gives voice to an array of people, each one with a distinct difference, and yet still stays true to his overall style. Hal sounds like: “It was a toilet-seat-sticks-to-your-ass kind of weather.” There’s Noreen who laughs at her own jokes: “Noreen collected water in her hands and drank, like a happy little duck. She felt better.” However, it’s not just their voices that make them good stories, it’s also Chu’s attention to the pacing of a story. With “Ambrosia,” we get the main character exaggerating how no one is eating her friend’s ambrosia salad, “[a] dish that knows its history and is self-aware, a salad that winks at you.” This displacement of her anxiety allows us to eventually find out what is truly bothering her about her friend, without it feeling like she was withholding in the beginning. With the added extreme tension in the mix, Chu expertly folds in humor. When our main character says, “In Greek mythology, ambrosia was food of the gods,” everyone slowly eats the salad, and then suddenly everyone gets sick. The plot rushes forward with everyone pushing over each other to get to a bathroom, even saying in desperation, “Look, there! I think I see a porta-potty in the park.” Chu allows the two women to laugh about it, and the small conflict about the salad releases the panic that was between the two in a beautiful moment as the women drive away, barely breathing between gasping, full-belly laughs.
With Like a Champion, Chu creates characters so realistic they could be you. I cried with them, laughed many times, cheered them on, or enjoyed their conversations. Chu mixes their everyday struggle with what makes them who they are so specifically, that they could be walking past you as you sit out on the patio of your favorite burger joint. Like A Champion fits well in the satire genre, yet also goes beyond this wit to show complexity, and the struggle of characters who are all too human.
Like a Champion, by Vincent Chu. Brooklyn, New York: 7.13 Books, February 2018. 244 pages. $15.99, paper.
Rebekah Daniel is a senior at Winthrop University, who has published multiple times in their Anthology Literary Magazine, enjoys reading and writing, and is a first-time mom to her ten-month-old daughter Evelyn.