Love Like That by Emma Duffy-Comparone

EXCELLENT STORIES, NOT POP

a book review by New Pop Lit

If she got the job, Ruth would have to sign a waiver agreeing to be quarantined if something serious broke out in the ward . . . “You could be quarantined for several months.”

“Sure,” she said. “Fine.”

DIRTY REALISM was a term used to describe a style of American short story writing of the mid-1980s, popularized by Raymond Carver and Joy Williams, among others. Hemingway-and-Chekhov inspired, the style is characterized by deadpan prose and a matter-of-fact attitude. Realistic? To the max. The characters are working class, resigned to their fate, with not even the possibility of change. There’s emotion– sometimes a lot of it– but it’s invariably off-stage or between the lines.

This is the writing style Emma Duffy-Comparone follows in her new collection of stories, Love Like That. Nine Stories of people working jobs or looking for jobs; children, teens or adults seeking refuge or answers. The stories contain drama but it’s understated drama, even when the occurrences are anything but. They’re not without humor– a kind of self-mocking dry humor. The tales ostensibly aren’t about the pandemic and American life over the past year, but they may as well be. They convey a beaten-down pandemic mood.

As with any short story collection, not every story is a masterwork, but a few of them are. Duffy-Comparone is like an opera singer attempting to hit a high note in an aria. With at least three of the stories, she nails it.

“Marvel Sands” is about a fifteen year-old girl who gets a job at a state park.

At six that night, I hosed down the showers, changing rooms, and foyer, steering the sand into the steel traps in the middle of the floor and out the doors. The work was surprisingly physical. At one point I looked at myself in a mirror. My neck and throat were red. My hair was frizzed. I bent over and soaked my head with the hose. Within minutes my scalp felt hot again.

Lurking in the story are two mature males of ominous presence, one her mother’s boyfriend, the other her boss.

With this story as in all the stories there’s no editorializing. Just laying out the reality– the facts– and sometimes not all the facts. Enough vibrates nearby for the reader to know what’s happened.

“Sure, Fine,” is the most powerful story of the nine, yet at the same time the most positive– if anything about these bleak tales can remotely be considered positive. An accident occurs during a shift at a very crummy job– by the end, as brutal as life is– as it’s shown to be– there’s a quiet, unspoken triumph simply at having survived it.

The best story, maybe because it’s more complex, runs deeper, is “Exuma.” In its way, a contorted love story. Nothing is resolved plotwise, yet at the same time by the end maybe something is resolved– a step toward resolution and healing for a damaged human being. What am I talking about? To know, you’ll have to read the story.

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This collection and its author face a dilemma. Like the original tales of dirty realism, these stories will not be immediately accessible to the ordinary reader. Even Raymond Carver was more popular with writers than with the general reading public. Unlike Ernest Hemingway, he didn’t opt for glamorous people and exotic locations. All glamor was stripped away. For many readers, it was their shitty lives staring back at them.

Beyond this, Emma Duffy-Comparone is in a situation analogous to that of a current-day rock guitarist, who might be able to play better than Eric Clapton or Eddie Van Halen ever could, but few people care, because guitar stars are already in their pantheon and unless someone completely reinvents the form there’s no room for more.

Duffy-Comparone is every bit the story writer Raymond Carver was, but isn’t a familiar name even among writers.

Maybe this will change.

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LOVE LIKE THAT is available from Henry Holt.

Photo of Emma Duffy-Comparone by Dave Brainard.

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