Deceptively beautiful. Surprisingly painful. Heartbreaking. Clever as hell. Funny and real. Anne Fleming’s collection of stories, Gay Dwarves of America, is all of the above and more. These nine pieces sometimes fall into what one would understand a story looks like, and other times, they will poke and push at the edges of convention. I love this about Fleming. She is bold and willing to experiment. This is risky. It takes courage. Massive kudos for making the attempt. And Brava for having the skill, talent and temerity to make it work because in this case, it pays off. These stories are wonderful.
“Backstock: The Musical” is just that – a musical, a libretto of sorts. It’s both funny and witty, and shocking. “Puke Diary” is quite literally a diary of its characters’ puking, starting with Sarah the cat – which had me laughing out loud. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the final piece in this collection – “Thirty-One One Word Stories,” which is exactly what its title says, thirty-one one-word-per-page ‘stories.’
Fleming is a master of literary sleight of hand, as she leads readers into the inner lives of her characters only to twist our perceptions in previously unimagined ways. Or she will turn what seemed like whimsy into something hard and sad. “Unicycle Boys,” for example, is a story that swirls around a single memory of a boy on a unicycle –
There is always a boy on a unicycle. It is not the same boy, but if you collected them together, you’d quickly see what they have in common, besides, of course, curly hair and skinny legs and a certain angularity of shoulder, a certain quality to their skin, be it brown or olive or pink, as if beneath the troubled epi– lay a clear and radiant dermis.
In the course of this wonderful story we meet the boy, the original boy on a unicycle, and we grow to love him as we do the flawed narrator. We see ourselves in these characters and that’s what makes the tragedy of this story so big. In twenty perfect pages, Fleming shines a light on the shallowness and cruelty of youth, the exuberance of first love, and how these things can break you and how sometimes these breaks don’t mend, ever. Sometimes, what doesn’t kill you doesn’t, in the end, make you stronger, contradicting what old Nietzsche said. Instead, these experiences haunt and reverberate for a lifetime.
“Unicycle Boys” is the first story in this collection. It’s the story by which Fleming proves she can deftly craft a brilliant, somewhat conventional short story that hits in the head and the heart.
Then comes the title piece, “Gay Dwarves of America,” which follows the lives of a couple of male college students who create a fictitious website, a dating site for gay dwarves. But the email from a mom who suspects her son, a little person, is in fact gay, starts to change everything between the two friends. The mom would love it if her son would let her know one way or the other – she’s encouraging him to come out – and in an email she writes: “I think I should just let things be for a while. As long as Peter knows I love him no matter what, well, what else can I do?” If this story was a teeter-totter, this line is the fulcrum. After this, everything tilts toward a sad yet oddly hopeful ending.
“The Pear” is a romance that begins with the question of a pear – what is it comprised of? What is the best way to eat a pear? And then: “I will eat the pear she gave me.” And so this story goes – an older woman who is madly in love with a younger woman, a free-spirited butterfly who needs a place to stay, for a while. And in the end, Fleming gives us the pointed denial of the older woman, an affirmation of broken love and loneliness – “…don’t flatter yourself. I would have loved anybody.”
Sometimes the tag “experimental” comes with the baggage of trying too hard to be quirky, or the work can be completely unapproachable. This is certainly not the case with the handful of Fleming’s stories that might be called experimental. While they are stylistically divergent, at no time, even with her “Thirty-One One Word Stories,” which is pretty far out there as far as stories go, does it seem pushed.
Fleming’s stories are beautiful intaglios of loneliness, damaged people and the messiness that we create by being human and rubbing up against each other. From the heartbreaking unicycle boy, to the gay dwarves website, to the diary of one family’s puke, these stories entertain and enthrall and titillate. I would not call this a summer read. I would call it a great must-read.
Pedlar | 290 pages | $21.00 | paper | ISBN #978-1897141465