Short stories can be as satisfying to read as longer fiction, but I usually prefer them one at a time. Collections, for me, can be difficult to get through. I have to really like a writer’s voice to stick with it through story after story where the characters, settings and themes will likely change but the voice, probably, will not. That consistency of voice – necessary, pleasurable in a novel—can be relentless in a collection.
But Gregory Spatz’s voice, in the eight previously published stories now collected in HALF AS HAPPY, is wonderful. He is as observant, as trenchant, as sympathetic towards his characters as any writer working today, and the stories, while mostly not happy, are exuberant and full of life. They flash backward and forward, filling in histories and details of the characters’ past lives and relationships; and why the characters find themselves just here, just now. Because they are so layered, so full of the archaeology of the characters’ lives, so sharply observed and fully rendered, they are novel-like in their satisfactions. This can make them a little tricky to talk about – but a deep pleasure to read.
In the story “No Kind of Music,” a couple has broken up, and the husband, Patrick, at first, feels some excitement about his new singleness. Spatz handles the passage of time – from before the story begins, to the present in a few sentences packed with detail: “He’d lost weight, cut his ponytail, got new glasses, capped his teeth and learned to smile more at strangers. But after time… when the charm of new loss had expired… he found himself more or less the same as ever.”
“More or less the same as ever” could be a defining motto for the characters in these stories. Spatz seems to be saying people are who they are. They may change outwardly, or their circumstances may alter, but who they are is imprinted in their DNA.
In the title story, the narrator watches his wife, who’s on a diet that has veered into anorexia, disappear. We’re told he liked to watch Heidi swim, but there “was less and less of her to watch… The bones in her ankles and feet had begun showing again and there was that pleasing, flaring, egg-shaped concavity about each of her collarbones and indented around her hips, as well – things he had loved about her years ago, before they were even married, and which he had forgotten because of how long they’d lain hidden under new layers of her flesh, flesh he’d loved, as well, though differently.”
It’s a beautiful description for the rhythm and vividness of the prose and as a depiction both of what’s happening to Heidi and of a husband’s keen eye and affection for his wife. They are a long-time couple, together more than 20 years, having found the middle ground necessary to a marriage: its most livable place. “They’d been here before – were always one way or another returning to this ironic middle ground of semi-amused playfulness and understanding which was also somehow never quite amused or understanding.”
Another aspect of a long-term relationship – of humanness – Spatz explores here is secretiveness. When the husband drives Heidi’s best friend Siam to the airport after a visit, Siam makes her sexual interest in him clear. It’s also clear he won’t tell Heidi partly because it would damage the friendship and the marriage if he did, but also because the moment belonged only to him.
Secrets – secretiveness – play a part in other stories as well. In “Any Landlord’s Dream,” a couple grieving differently for the loss of their first child, rents a house. “The house had its secrets: some they came to know, most they didn’t.” The wife “had her secrets, too – she’d always had. It was what had drawn him to her most irresistibly,… purplish marks like smudges under the skin that erupted unaccountably and disappeared just as mysteriously… And the eyes… doll-like, recalcitrant, vaguely sad even when she was laughing: what did that mean?”
Even the physical world holds secrets. In a paragraph that spans centuries, Spatz gives us the history of the house, a history unknown to its occupants, present and past. “Two men had died here; three marriages were broken; eighteen children grown to adulthood; twenty six makes of car had parked in the garage or on the paved area outside, and two RV’s. Nine signed bank notes. Twelve rental agreements. No boats.” The house is unknowable. The paragraph, compact and beautiful.
Spatz’s descriptive style is exuberant overabundance. He wants his readers to see and smell and taste everything, creating worlds that are vivid and memorable. Occasionally, the exuberance is a little over-the-top, as if he’s afraid we might miss something. In “No Kind of Music” we’re told Patrick’s wife has left him and “taken up with a man four years younger than herself who had a carbon and titanium contraption for a left leg (to Patrick it looked part gazelle, part Cyborg with a short, springy ski-foot thing at the end of it, more like a small inverted suspension bridge than a foot).” The description opens out, then opens out again and becomes ultimately distracting. A descriptive detail about a secondary character takes over.
Similarly in “String,” the last story in the collection, we encounter “…lame tennis matches on Mason’s weed festooned clay court, whacking at each other tennis balls so dead and bald they looked more like mushrooms than any kind of sporting goods. Hit hard enough, one would occasionally pop wide, emitting an eggy smell of rubberized glue, ancient pine needles and chilly spring rain.” It’s an acute and finely rendered description, but it’s a lot of weight for a tennis ball to carry.
“String” is the strongest piece in this collection. It’s the story of an event – a highway prank by two young boys – that connects a number of people for life. It’s deeply engrossing, roomy enough for a novella or a novel, though the ending is a little too quick and neat.
These stories are about long marriages that endure or don’t, about parents and children and siblings, about friends. They show ongoing lives. This is from “No Kind of Music,” but it could be about any of the stories here: “He watched the curtains spin inward with the breeze that carried the same lavender, pine-tree, hot tarmac and barbecue smells that had convinced him, lullingly, moments ago, that he was on the verge of something wonderful and/or that this was one of those perfect days you wait for and need to somehow hang onto, keep forever from passing. What had changed? Everything and nothing.”
These are vibrant, richly described, indelible stories. Gregory Spatz is a masterful writer, working at the top of his game.