Reviewed by Laura Johanna Waltje
Counterpoint Press 224 pp. Tortoise Books 246 pp.
Gabriel, a small time creative writing professor, is shocked to find his former colleague and lover, Zaqar, passed out in his office. Seeing her there, sprawled out, dirty, and drunk, he thinks back to a moment when she quoted Henry James, “something about a secret habit of sorrow, and the sharp pain of missing opportunities.” Through that quote, Victoria Patterson ties the title of her short story collection, The Secret Habit of Sorrow, directly into the text. The full James quote illuminates more about her total subject matter than the regret of missed opportunities and the inability to change self-destructive behavioral patterns.
It was the soreness of his remorse that the child had in all likelihood not really been dull—had been dull, as he had been banished and neglected, mainly because the father had been unwittingly selfish. This was doubtless but the secret habit of sorrow, which had slowly given way to time; yet there remained an ache sharp enough to make the spirit, at the sight now and again of some fair young man just growing up, wince with the thought of an opportunity lost.
Sorrow and grief, regret, and self-destructive behavior, damaged and irreparably broken relationships between family members all serve as Patterson’s subject matter. These stories are intimate, revealing the ugly choices and bad decisions made by her characters in their most private moments. There are stories about ex-lovers and tentative friendships, like “Confetti,” the story of Gabriel and Zaqar, or “Parking Far Away,” in which a young women recovering from addiction shares an unexpected moment with her alcoholic and hostile coworker. However, the vast majority of stories in her collection are about family dynamics. Patterson’s opening story, “How to Lose,” is about an infertile woman caring for her departed sister’s orphaned son. Their intimacy, affection, and shared mourning is simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking:
The other day AJ told Natalie that he believed he was fat. They had a serious discussion. NO one, AJ insisted, said this to him. NO one at school, not Glen, not Glen’s mom. He’d figured it out by looking at Glen’s body when they were changing into swim trunks and then comparing it to his own. Natalie told AJ that he wasn’t fat and that, in fact, he was on the lean side. Glen was very thin and would fit out in time . . . . But later he wanted to talk again. He’d decided that she wouldn’t tell him the truth.
“Why?” she asked.
“Because,” he said “you’re my aunt and don’t want to hurt my feelings. You feel bad like everyone else does.” He didn’t say because his mom died, but she knew that was what he meant . . . . “You’re wrong,” Natalie told AJ. “You can trust me. As your aunt and your legal guardian, I’m obliged to tell you if you’re fat, because it is a health risk and my responsibility is to keep you healthy.” This seemed to appease him.
In “Half-Truths,” a young hard-working single mother can’t seem keep herself from her son’s drug-addicted, deadbeat father. In direct and immediate prose, Patterson reveals the choices that shatter and erode familial bonds, often between children and their parents. The family dynamics she describes are so affecting because of her gift for realistically writing children and teenagers living through dark or melancholy subject matter. She reveals her characters at their lowest, during and after their worst decisions and she manages to do so without creating a sense of pity. The reader does not stand above the characters, looking down, but experiences a real sense of empathy as we follow the poor choices made by her characters and understand that despite every internal and external desire to act differently, the habits of her protagonists trap them in an inevitable sequence of destructive events.
Jeremy T. Wilson shares Patterson’s gift for creating empathy for initially unlikable characters whose destructive and compulsive behaviors hurt themselves and those closest to them. Where Patterson is direct and immediate, presenting her characters without judgement, Wilson injects dry humor, as evidenced by his story, “Trash Days,” in which a marriage disintegrates when a joke about buying a sex doll escalates.
Sometimes Walt and LeAnne played like this. One of them would see how far they could take a joke before the other cracked or cracked up. Once, Walt had claimed to suddenly have a huge passion for sailing, so LeAnne signed him up for sailing lessons on Lake Michigan, subscribed him to Good Old Boat magazine, bought him navy blue shorts patterned with tiny white sailboats. He came back from the second lesson green faced and asking for ginger ale. Another time, LeAnne had stood her ground in an argument that Emilio Estevez was underrated as an actor — that he was, in fact, her favorite actor. LeAnne now owned every Emilio Estevez movie.
Doubt and distrust spin out of control when LeAnne sees (non-sexual) videos that Walt has made of the sex doll engaging in mundane household tasks, like making tea and trimming the hedges. LeAnne finally finds the doll, named Tiffani, stuffed into the trunk of their car; Tiffani’s position and human features make Walt’s betrayal and LeAnne’s violent retaliation all the more bizarre and affecting:
She peered into [the snowblower’s] mouth and saw the corkscrew-looking blades. She fingered their edges. She looked out to the driveway, Tiffani flopped in her pajamas in the brightening morning. Tiffani would have to be smaller, much smaller. LeAnne couldn’t just run over her face first with the blower and expect the paddle to keep on chugging, whirring her up and spitting her out skull to toe. Bit by bit it would have to swallow her: hair, ears, nose, lips, fingers, hands, boobs, toes, her body disassembled and then fed into the mouth of the machine. It would take time. Walt would catch her. He would hear the noise of the snowblower and get curious. She needed him to catch her.
At the end, the nature and extent of Walt’s betrayal remains unclear.
Equally ambiguous and affecting is “Nesting.” Here an expecting couple grow apart through the stress of pregnancy: the wife, Megan, has visions of her husband’s dead father, while Tate, the husband, has an affair with his boss. Wilson does not tell us whether the couple’s marriage survives, whether the husband keeps his job or even whether Megan really has seen her father-in-law. Perhaps her stories of her visions as well as her secretly making household repairs are part of a passive aggressive plot:
Tate finally understood the game. It didn’t really matter how all the work was getting done.
The point was for Tate to feel inadequate. Through the ghost of his dad she was showing Tate what he could be like, what he should be like, and what was missing from his dad-ness.
Tate’s response is to take up baking, as a passive aggressive stab at her maternal abilities:
So Tate made cupcakes. Again, nothing from a box, all from scratch . . . Megan bit into one, vanilla cake with a cream cheese fronsting, rainbow sprinkles — his own touch. “Yum,” she said. She was clearly missing the point.
Wilson does not give his readers easy answers, morals, or resolutions. The open ended quality of Wilson’s stories can have a nearly unfinished feeling, but more often than not create a complicated and affecting ambiguity that causes them to linger in the reader’s consciousness.
While Wilson’s and Patterson’s books contend with similar subject matter in comparable ways, Patterson’s stories lack some of Wilson’s productive ambiguity. Wilson does not solve or answer the ethical dilemmas he sets up and his characters rarely end at either a better or worse place than they started. The emotional arc of Patterson’s stories are cleaner. In a few stories, they verge on being too clean. In “Vandals,” Brian, while house-sitting for his ex-wife, encounters a high schooler who holds a justified grudge towards his son. Sitting platonically together outside of his ex-wife’s house, Brian and the girl are both isolated. However, Patterson undercuts the emotional impact of the moment by writing, “He felt the poignancy of their common ground, his longing and loneliness akin to hers.” The added moralizing line which has a few siblings across other stories in this collection is a shame, since Patterson’s strong language and evocative, pathos-free writing does the work of that line effectively for her.
In the most successful stories in The Secret Habit of Sorrow, Patterson leaves open tension and ambiguity. “Johnny Hitman” and “Visitation” are particularly strong stories, in which Patterson uses the silence and secrecy around incestuous abuse to create a tension that feeds off of and creates the damaging habits of both the victims and perpetrators. In “Johnny Hitman,” recovering addict Linda remains close friends with born-again Christian Vivian, whose picture perfect family with two kids could not be further away from Linda’s daily experiences in Rehab. Their bond goes back to a childhood friendship that crystalized around a shared sexual trauma when Vivian’s estranged brother violated Linda and the reason for his estrangement came out: his sexual abuse of his sister Vivian.
“Nothing happened, nothing happened.” Rusty tried to walk away, but Mr. Flaherty let me go and grabbed his elbow. He smacked him across the face with the palm of his hand. Rusty hunched over, a purple mark where Mr. Flaherty’s horseshoe shaped ring had dug into his cheek. “Fuck you,” he said, but it came out miserable. He stood, moved his hand to his cheek, and started for the side door. “Fuck you,” he said again before leaving but it came out quiet and just as miserable.
Mr. Flaherty had closed his robe and I was glad that I couldn’t see his boxers and hairy chest. He cradled his head with his hands. Then his face lifted. He stared at Vivian for a long second, as if to say, Tell her. But he didn’t want to be there when she did, so he left us . . . .When she said, “I’m only going to say this once, and you have to promise not to ever tell anyone,” I understood that Rusty’s attention to me had been an attempt to get to her, and that he was very dangerous.
In “Visitation,” Rachel’s mother and grandmother are upset to discover that she had been visiting her grandfather. Their horror and revulsion at Rachel’s budding relationship and intimacy with her grandfather take on a much darker tint as it hints at a past of sexual abuse and pedophilia. Rachel catches fragments of her grandmother confronting Grandpa Lewis as she is spirited away:
“What is wrong with you?” she spat out at Grandpa Lewis.
“If I knew,” he said, “would I be here?”
Her mom led Rachel from the room, but she heard her grandma say, “Sure. Sure you would. You know exactly what’s wrong, but you can’t stop yourself.”
In a Tin House interview, Victoria Patterson had this to say on writing about children in fiction: “They’re sophisticated, guileless truth tellers.” She could have been describing both Jeremy T. Wilson’s and her own prose. Victoria Patterson’s stories in The Secret Habit of Sorrow and Jeremy T. Wilson’s in Adult Teeth delicately and unflinchingly handle grim subject matter. Their stories go beyond sorrow and wasted opportunity into the deep and unwitting selfishness. They show the compulsive destructiveness of addictive behavior and its broader damages than to the individual. Despite the darkness of the subject matter, Patterson’s and Wilson’s humor, ambiguity, and immediacy kindle empathy for characters that seem beyond redemption and end with something that might almost be hope.
For the past few years Laura Johanna Waltje has been untangling private and public culpability and complicity. She is a writer, sound designer, textile artist, and educator. As the cofounder and managing editor of Second Draft Press, she publishes experimental writing and reviews of work by the queer, poc, and qpoc artists that deserve your attention. Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Brine, Columbia Poetry Review, Airport Road, Rosewater Magazine, and The Gazelle. Her fiction has been collected in Red Beard Press’s anthologies Knock on Sky and Glass Bottom Boat. For more of her work visit laurawaltje.com.