From Drivers and Believers to Madre and Sibs, the characters in Nathan Leslie's short stories have always been people who could fit into the fictional world of Raymond Carver — beat, anonymous loners trying to figure out how they fit into the world — into their marriages, families, jobs. I'd have said these characters would "feel at home" in a Ray Carver story, but these are characters that precisely do not feel "at home." Ever. These same kinds of characters appear vividly throughout the fifty-two stories in Root and Shoot, only now they seem even to take on a Dostoyevskian tinge. Think Notes from Underground.
Like the nameless narrator of the Dostoyevsky novella — often referred to as the first "existentialist" novel — Keith, the protagonist of "A Fine Line," is estranged from daily reality, hermetic. "'Success' is a sucker's deal," he says. He holds several low-profile wage-earning jobs and his best friend is a fifteen-year old kid with whom he shelves books at the public library, one of his gigs. "Sometimes I drive him home. His parents don't wave to me, and they don't look me on the eyes." Of course, what parent wouldn't be suspicious?
I blame my undergraduate education. I see myself as some dazed character from
a Sartre novel, maybe Nausea. When I lift a knife, I do think I could
stab myself in the eye if I wanted to. When I put oil in my hatchback I imagine
possibly drinking it. A fine line exists between stability and the loss of it.
Keith and his "new 'ex–girlfriend'" Jillian meet for lunch. They seem to get along fine. There are no scenes, no screaming. But this seems to be the way all of the divorced couples in these stories get along. There's just no connection there. It's a fine line between anti–social and sociopathic.
"A Fine Line" comes from a section called "Me, Me, Me." For the sake of organization, these fifty–two stories are sorted into six sections, but really they are all of a single piece. True, the stories in the "Snapshots" section all focus on a critical moment in the history of their characters. In "In Different Rooms" the narrator and his wife Patty, who have fallen through the interstices of the American Dream to a soft landing as the American Joke, dress up as lizards as part of a sales promotion gimmick. It's sad and funny and absurd at the same time, and all along they are just trying to breathe life into their marriage.
But snapshots of crises are at the heart of most of these stories — subtle, touching, but crucial and even desperate — and never resolved, since time just keeps on unraveling, carrying history along with it.
In the "Me, Me, Me" section, all of the stories are narrated in the first person, yes, but that's true of many others in other sections, and while the characters — such as the History professor in "Night Teaching" — are all self–absorbed, this is often tragically true of the characters elsewhere. "Every semester," the professor tells us
I end up sleeping with one of my students, sometimes two if I am lucky.
It's sketchy and unethical as hell, I know, but somehow I can get away with it
— I'm still young enough myself, perhaps. I'm not admirable.
And while the plots of the stories in the "Flights of Fancy" section can be a bit bizarre — in "Bendering the Spoon" a woman gives birth to a spoon, a cup and a fork — the same can be said of others elsewhere, completely in keeping with the prevailing Dostoyevskian mood of estrangement. Or maybe this is more Kafkaesque ("The Metamorphosis") or like Gogol's story, "The Nose," those other masters of the alienated narrator/protagonist.
For this is not a criticism; indeed, these stories all fit admirably together. The problem with any short story collection is always sustaining the reader's interest from one story to the next. These stories succeed in doing just that. They are touching and witty and if not exactly "humorous," despite the mirthless chuckle of recognition many so often evoke, reminders of our own worst thoughts during those three–a.m. bouts of insomnia — human and in that sense affirming.
The penultimate story, "The Last Novel," from the "Ars Prosetica" section, captures the mood succinctly. The protagonist, F, is writing a novel he calls The Last Novel. He is aloof, a recluse, an outsider.
F wears the armor of ironic disregard. He dresses in sweatpants. F loathes literary
affectations. "Who is your agent? Who is your publisher? Who is your publicist? If I may
ask, what was your advance?" As far as F is concerned, they can all jump off a cliff. On
other days his fantasies are more vivid. He'd rather sit in a room, write. He'd rather sit
in a room, read. He'd rather talk to his very unliterary friends, drink a beer, watch
television, walk the dog, stir fry broccoli, reupholster the couch, wash his car, and
check the mailbox. Anything but talk to other writers.
Nathan Leslie has perfected his craft over scores of stories and years of writing. The stories in Root and Shoot fit together like a novel.