Review: Jody Hobbs Hesler on Lisa Cupolo’s story collection Have Mercy on Us

The ten keenly observed stories in Lisa Cupolo’s award-winning debut collection Have Mercy On Us usher us into a world of strained relationships. Whether in Kenya, Canada, Florida, or California, every character struggles to exert more power than their relationships allow, to matter more than they do—to themselves or to other significant players in their lives.

In “Felt and Left Have the Same Letters,” we feel Daria’s diminishment when she nods to her philandering husband’s apparent disinterest, observing that, “He didn’t see the dye on my head; he didn’t see me at all.” Later, after she returns from the scene of what’s sure to be her husband’s next seduction, she seems to praise the power of dailiness over the novelty of dalliance: “That was one downfall of a person who desires: they are void of a future. Someone has to do the washing up, for example.” Meant to elevate her role as endurer over her husband’s as futureless adventurer, the statement’s aftertaste tangs with resignation. Who really wants to be the washer-upper?

Similarly, Alina overestimates her personal power in the title story. The first paragraph quickly reveals the central facts: “Darrell was Claudia’s boyfriend and the reason her daughter was in trouble. Darrell had knocked her up when the girl was only seventeen.” These swift strokes prime us to identify with Alina’s motherly quest to uproot Darrell’s destructive influence, though the lengths she goes to may make us nervous. Eventually, her half-baked plan of stalking him in hopes of playing upon his superstitions, backfires dramatically, with Alina leaving the fracas she initiates in handcuffs.

The father’s drastic misread of his own influence in “Long Division” hits a funny chord, though the upshot of the story still lands in heartache territory. This father flies all the way to Kenya to track down his son, Tim, who’s a foreign aid worker there. What could have been a gleeful reunion and a father’s chance to appreciate the life his son is living turns sour when the father reveals the true reason for his trip. Tim’s sister Maddy has ‘‘‘gone to one of her unreachable places again,’” the father says, and he has come to Kenya to entice Tim to come home and help her as he’s always done before. The father makes this request while witnessing, though disregarding, the backdrop of larger, more urgent needs the son is currently fulfilling, which is simultaneously bitingly funny and shamefully solipsistic.

In yet another case of misaligned relationship power dynamics, Paula misconstrues her role in her seemingly idyllic homelife with best friend Genie in “Zee House.” Their living arrangement kicks off with utopian hopefulness: “Wouldn’t it be grand to live with your best friend in a well-designed home, combining assets and sharing some of the best comforts of a marriage, without the trouble of a man?” The zee in the story’s title describes the floorplan of the women’s shared house, with each woman claiming one leg of the zee for themselves and meeting in the middle for common space. The arrangement begets much mutual satisfaction until Genie’s son Dan’s divorce-healing, long-term stay tips the balance between the women, and tips Paula off to how she appears in her friend’s eyes: “she and Dan are the same to Genie. The walking wounded, the kept ones, and Genie has been the saving presence,” a truth that spoils what was good between them.

Zora Neale Hurston makes a fitting fictional cameo in this collection of stories about people whose worth is overlooked. “Fort Pierce, Florida” locates us with Hurston near the end of her life, when she’s cleaning hotels in obscurity despite her significant literary and anthropological talents and achievements. We find her giving writing advice to a weaselly drunken white hotel guest who condescends and patronizes his grudging way toward recognizing her superior literary instincts. At his request, she offers this classic response to his fledgling work: “‘It’s vivid … but it’s not doing anything yet.’” Every writer has heard a version of this nugget at some point in their career, and it echoes with that missed-connection vibe that saturates the collection.

Throughout, taut, lively language serves up sharp lines and terse, accurate observations. In “Teacups,” one character’s patience for another “is about the length of a toothpick,” and the cleverly titled “How I Became a Banker” opens with an equally clever line: “I made a promise to myself when I was twelve that no matter what, I’d make a shitload of money.” Later in the same story, the narrator’s shrewd assessment that “building up [my father’s] ego was part of my daughterly duties,” adds a dash of bittersweetness to the funny line later about how her ex-boyfriend “always said my father reminded him of Willy Loman with a sense of humor.” At once wise and witty, lonely and insistent, these stories are full of pleasures to discover.

Have Mercy on Us, by Lisa Cupolo. Raleigh, North Carolina: Regal House Publishing, January 2023. 144 pages. $17.95, paper.

Jody Hobbs Hesler’s debut short story collection, What Makes You Think You’re Supposed to Feel Better, is forthcoming from Cornerstone Press in November 2023, and her debut novel, Without You Here, is forthcoming from Flexible Press in November 2023. Her writing appears in Necessary Fiction, The Millions, Atticus Review, The Rumpus, The Los Angeles Review, CRAFT, The Bangalore Review, Arts & Letters, Pithead Chapel, Gargoyle, Raleigh Review, PANK, Virginia Wine & Country Life, and elsewhere. She earned her fiction MFA from Lesley University, teaches at WriterHouse in Charlottesville, Virginia, and reads for The Los Angeles Review.

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