Could You Be with Her Now
by Jen Michalski
Dzanc Books, 2013
$ 15.95, 180 pages
The best introduction to Jen Michalski's new book, Could You Be with Her Now, may be to compare the two novellas that make it up, I Can Make It to California Before It's Time for Dinner and May-September. They're very different narratives, one violent and darkly comic, the other poignant and romantic, but they share some stylistic similarities — brief chapters that move the story along at a steady pace, clear, descriptive sentences that give the reader a vivid sense of the present moment. In the first, quotation marks are used to indicate speech; in the second they are not. The first is written in the present tense, the second in the past tense. These are stylistic choices that carry their respective stories. In the first, the protagonist lives in a sort of perpetual present; in the second, there's a sort of elegiac sense of regret for a relationship that didn't quite work, in the past.
I Can Make It to California Before It's Time for Dinner is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, and what does it signify? The idiot, Jimmy Dembrowski, is a fifteen-year old boy who lives in Baltimore. He has a strange sense of reality, puzzling over the people on television and people in the real world. Jimmy is obsessed with a television character named Megan. He wants her to be his girlfriend. Jimmy and his older brother Josh spend a lot of time alone at home together after school, while their parents are at work, and one afternoon, Jimmy goes in search of Megan, who he knows lives in California, where she's an actress, but he has no concept of where “California” might be. Thus, the title gives us an understanding of Jimmy's lack of a sense of proportion, his skewed awareness of reality.
The upshot is that Jimmy wanders out of his neighborhood, gets lost, sees somebody he thinks is Megan, tries to make friends with her and, like Lenny breaking the neck of the mouse in Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, accidentally kills the girl he thinks is Megan. Only, he doesn't realize she is dead; he thinks she is feigning sleep, and he wanders off.
Later, when it becomes clear that the police have put two and two together and have come looking for Jimmy, Josh, in a misguided effort to protect his brother, takes him to a schoolyard and cautions him to wait there while he comes up with a plan. Jimmy does his best to obey Josh, but ultimately he wanders off and winds up with a long-distance trucker named Ed who entices Jimmy into the cab of his truck, sexually molests him, and they wind up in Florida, where Jimmy is rescued when a suspicious driver sees Jimmy in the truck and calls the police.
They're very different narratives, one violent and darkly comic, the other poignant and romantic...
At the end, Jimmy is reunited with his family, in police custody in Florida. He is wanted for questioning back in Baltimore for the death of the girl he thinks is Megan, but the officials are clearly sympathetic since he is a kidnap victim and certainly not a malicious person.
I Can Make It to California Before It's Time for Dinner has all the makings of a tense legal thriller involving knowledge of right and wrong and the ability to understand the moral consequences of our actions, the nature of justice and punishment, but Michalski doesn't want to go there, to the formulaic legal bestseller. Leave that to Scott Turow. Instead, the whole point is to get inside the head of this person with a compromised sense of reality and see where circumstances lead him in his picaresque adventures. Jimmy is clearly a sympathetic character, even as he tries our patience. We listen to him talking about God with the naïve understanding of a child and feel an endearing sympathy for his innocence — while at the same time we are horrified by the events that befall him. This is not a deep psychological investigation of the mind of a mentally challenged teenager; it's an entertainment that, well, signifies nothing. What will happen to Jimmy when he returns? Prison, an institution, a lawsuit? Nothing good, but this is not the point of all that sound and fury. Above all, I Can Make It to California is an impressive feat of imagination.
May-September is a different narrative altogether, much more complex, subtle and original. The story of the brief involvement between an older woman, Sandra, in her late sixties, and Alice, less than half her age, the novella is told in alternating chapters from the perspective of both women, though always in the third person.
Michalski skillfully weaves memory and reality in and out of each other...
Alice, a writer living a hand-to-mouth existence as a bookstore clerk, answers an ad from the older, well-to-do Sandra to help her set up a blog for her grandchildren in Florida — a project Sandra's daughter Andrea has goaded her mother into pursuing. Both women bring baggage to their acquaintance. Alice has recently broken up with her girlfriend Lauren, with whom she'd lived for five years, and Sandra brings a lifetime of disappointment. Born in 1940 when women were basically raised to be married, she'd always wanted to be a concert pianist but instead was more or less pushed by her mother into a secure, loveless marriage with her chemist husband, Jack, and led a frivolous upper middleclass life of cocktail parties and housewifery, with an adulterous affair with her husband's colleague Leroy and a largely unfulfilled crush on another woman in her social set, Georgi. Michalski skillfully weaves memory and reality in and out of each other as Sandra and Alice become closer over the course of the story, each attracted to the other, physically and emotionally, but baffled by the difference in their age and, in Sandra's case, the taboo of same-sex relationships that come with her generation and social background. These discrepancies become painfully difficult in social situations, at the symphony to which Sandra invites Alice and at a reading Alice gives to which she invites Sandra and which Lauren, her ex, attends as well, perhaps intending to make up with Alice. At the reading, Lauren pointedly asks who Sandra is to Alice, and Alice is confused:
Sandra looked at Alice, and Alice understood that she must speak or not speak of it, even though they had not discussed it alone, in advance. Perhaps they did not discuss it when they were alone because their understanding of it, the musings of which were murky even to Alice, was enough. But Alice did not know what Sandra wanted them to be and Alice did not know, either. Or perhaps she knew but did not know whether it was possible, and if not, why. Was it Sandra, Alice, both of them, or someone else, everyone else? Nothing else?
But the two are attracted to one another and who knows what might have developed — if you could be with her now — if it weren't for Sandra's heart attack and the subsequent intervention of her daughter, Andrea. The two are made painfully aware of the difficulties and challenges of a relationship. Is it fair to make Alice care for her aging lover, etc.?
This is an admirable and original book. Michalski is a skilled storyteller. I look forward to her novel, The Tide King, due out later this year from Black Lawrence Press.