SHELF LIFE OF HAPPINESS, short stories by Virginia Pye, reviewed by Charles Duffie

In “Best Man,” the opening story from Virginia Pye’s new collection, Keith flies to Reno to attend Don’s wedding. Don is Keith’s best friend, as gay as Keith is straight, living with AIDS, and marrying a woman. That last fact confuses Keith, but soon all his expectations are unboxed: Don is near death, the wedding chapel looks like a porno shop, and Caroline, the bride-to-be, is the tough, tender, smart, beautiful, yearning incarnation of Keith’s own romantic ideal. Even the weather, a snowstorm in April, separates Keith from his most basic assumptions. His senses are exposed, and every detail appears with fresh, cinematic intensity:

She tipped her head back, exposing a white throat, and tried to catch snowflakes on her tongue … She wasn’t shivering, but seemed to be vibrating with cold, or trepidation, or even excitement. Where the snow fell on her neck, the skin turned instantly pink.

Pye is a master at finding the spaces that wound and flame and surprise us, the gaps between what we know and what we experience, between what we have and what we want. By the end of “Best Man,” Keith will see his life through Don’s urgent eyes, be turned inside out by Caroline’s kisses, and finally release his reserved heart with “a tangle of electric currents” and a grateful epiphany of “how foolish he had been not to realize there was no time left.” We’re in deep waters here.

Pye’s characters often discover that the “right” life isn’t right for them. In “Crying in Italian,” Sara is married to a generous husband, has two beautiful children, and is on vacation in Rome. But she feels like she’s living someone else’s dream and in her mind “has been leaving for some time now, so much so as to be already almost gone.” As the family follows a tour through the streets, Sara thinks of the shoe salesman who “assessed her calves with an unreconstructed male gaze—as if her legs had been put on this earth for his pleasure.” She’s less interested in historic sites than “the sweat beading routinely, handsomely, on the guide’s brown neck.” She yearns for a shock of life. As her husband follows the tour into the Coliseum, as her children (like innocent projections of her own crisis) try to decide if their longing for gelato can be satisfied by limonata, Sara notices two young lovers. When the couple slips away from the crowd, Sara follows, magnetized by their desire and youth. Soon she’s off the main path, hidden in the ruins, watching, galvanized as his hand

… presses down her thigh and disappears into the fabric between her legs, the small purple flowers embroidered on the white background crimped against his outstretched fingers. Her skirt will be wrinkled, Sara thinks, and quickly feels embarrassed that she is the only one who cares.

Sara slips out of time, forgets herself, her husband, even her children. The confrontation at the end of the story, between Sara and Graham, her young son, is one of the most startling and sensitive scenes I’ve ever read.

The damage, cost, and redemptive force of love appears again and again in this remarkable collection. But it’d be a mistake to think Pye is simply breaking our hearts. Underneath, she’s fracking the existential bedrock of our lives.

For example, in “Easter Morning,” families gather to fill “gaudy plastic eggs with treasure” and count their blessings “not in prayer, but with each bite taken and each story told.” The grown-ups learn that one of the boys has a dead bird. His father explains, “When something dies, its soul goes up to heaven, but its body stays here and gets pretty gross.” But that doesn’t discourage the boy. He wants to keep the dead bird. He wants to see what happens. On the surface, the grown-ups are surprised and disgusted. But underneath, “We could understand the boy’s point of view. You did want to see. Sometimes you did.” They find the bird in the boy’s dresser drawer, eyeless and pulsing with maggots:

We … noticed the way the worms curled past the plastic action figures and the marbles and the shiny little bell left in the corner of the drawer … All our efforts, the packages wrapped with ribbon and fine paper, the gifts bought and bestowed, in time came to resemble this drawer—entangled and slimy and just plain ruined.

A divinity student from the Ukraine, who arrived earlier like an angel out of the Old Testament, helps bury and bless the bird in an ancient language no one understands. Some worry that the boy will dig the bird up again, but “Now that it was buried, the boy could forget it more easily … Wasn’t that the idea, we all wondered, to forget it once it was gone?” Of course, Pye is no longer talking about dead birds. She evokes a child’s point of view so clearly, and the childlike awareness still capable of being awakened in adults, that you fall under the story’s strange spell, nodding to each painful observation until, like the characters, you realize hope is all we really have, that on this Easter morning there was no resurrection, only burial and a need to forget.

A similar existential crisis runs through the title story, “Shelf Life of Happiness.” Gloria is the daughter of a famous novelist, a man who kept up with Papa Hemingway word for word, drink for drink. Gloria may be a fine writer herself, but pushes that future on Nathan, a college friend. “You’re the writer,” she insists. “You’re the one who’s got it”:

She had no idea of her impact on someone like him, an orthodontist’s son from New Jersey. All he had ever done was read books and scribble in journals. But after hearing Gloria’s pronouncement and looking into her convincing eyes, Nathan saw the possibility, the hope, that he was becoming the man he wanted most to become.

Gloria is Nathan’s muse, and in time his publisher as well. He dreams of being with her, living the big, messy literary life, but Gloria remains out of reach. In time, Nathan marries Melissa who actually embodies the grounding love he truly desires, though he’s only occasionally aware of it. Meanwhile, Gloria burns through husbands and crashes through life, hungry for the kind of happiness that won’t dilute into boredom:

“Some people seem willing to do anything to be happy, even if it means becoming colossally dull,” Gloria continued. “But everyone knows it’s fleeting. There’s always a shelf life of happiness.”

As if to prove her point, she teases Nathan, stirs his old fantasies. A quick, defiant kiss in an elevator. A shoe moving up his leg under a restaurant table. A long kiss that pins him to the wall in a jazz club. Nathan admits, even as he resists, “It’s not like I’ve never thought about this.” There’s little doubt that Gloria can, in time, seduce Nathan away from the reality of his wife into a fantasy he has never fully surrendered or understood. In the end, the primary reason Nathan remains faithful is so moving, disturbing, comic and surprising, he becomes, like one of God’s holy fools, the only character in Pye’s collection whose happiness may not have an expiration date after all.

Clearly, I love these stories. I’ve tried to find fault, to offer a more balanced review, but after several readings I’ve accepted their completeness. If there’s a slight doubt I have about Pye’s craft, it’s that she may go one line, one sentiment, too far. Sometimes she wraps up a wound or rebalances a world rather than let her readers to do that work for themselves. But that’s more of a personal preference than a criticism.

Shelf Life of Happiness is an act of communion. Pye’s characters fall and break the way we fall and break, characters so real we’re caught in the desperate leaps their hearts take to survive. Wise, compassionate, beautiful and unsettling, these stories uncover the tough, elusive hope that holds us together.

Shelf Life of Happiness, by Virginia Pye. Winston-Salem, North Carolina: Press 53, October 2018. 169 pages. $17.95, paper.

Charles Duffie is a writer, designer, and illustrator based in Los Angeles. He is the author of The Mole and the Owl and the Kid, Inc. Comic Strip series. 

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