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Friends Like These
By Carlo Wolff

Big Cats

By Holiday Reinhorn

Free Press, 224 pages, $14.95

You have to read some of Holiday Reinhorn’s tricky, psychologically acute stories more than once. You’ll want to. Big Cats is a savory series of stories about dysfunction sequenced as well and mysteriously as a good rock record. So clear, so limpid, so skillful; Reinhorn’s narratives span sketches of pain like “Charlotte,” explorations of family like “Good To Hear You,” culture gaps (make that chasms) like “By the Time You Get This,” and generation gaps in the nasty, weirdly funny “Fuck You.”

Reinhorn’s writing is extraordinarily dramatic. Could anyone stop after the first sentence of “Charlotte”? “The day Mrs. Linkbaugh moved in next door, I cracked my pubic bone in two places.” Talk about in medias pelvis. Turns out the narrator is a girl on the verge of adolescence, Mrs. Linkbaugh an over-the-hill sexpot looking for sympathy and then some. You have to read the story through (it doesn’t take long) to appreciate how thoroughly and intuitively Reinhorn enters and then expresses a little girl’s mind. It’s as if Reinhorn stuffed the stages of her development into drawers she can open and use at will.

Reinhorn’s stories aren’t that nice and her world isn’t particularly pretty, but it’s wide open, as if aching to be filled. It’s West Coast suburban: “Modesto is growing like a weed bed these days, and we’re giving out money to practically anyone who asks,” grumbles David, the haunted narrator of “Get Away From Me, David,” Reinhorn’s mordant exploration of a bank’s underclass. There are no neighborhoods here; even family members are strangers, as in “Good To Hear You,” Reinhorn’s startling confabulation of 9/11. The hero-victim is a father who gets into trouble because he doesn’t realize terrorists have attacked. Once he realizes what has happened, he calls his daughter to exchange stories about where they were when the Twin Towers fell. The ending—a definitive closure—is so perfect it almost feels like a con, like tying a ribbon. But it’s only Reinhorn nailing it—which she does every time.

Even technically showy stories like “Last Seen,” which is told through multiple viewpoints, are eerie, complex, resonant. Is this about teen smut? Is it about a murderous young woman? Is it about career ambition? All of the above. Then again, perhaps none. Perhaps it’s actually, and only, about high school, as “Get Away From Me, David” is about a bank and “Big Cats” is about a zoo. Reinhorn certainly makes you look at institutions a new way.

That’s partly because there’s little history here, few cities, precious little community. Besides Modesto, which David disdains in “Get Away From Me, David,” and a disembodied Los Angeles that figures in the well-designed, troubling family tragedy Reinhorn calls “By the Time You Get This,” the only defined city in this collection is Memphis, the locus of “Good To Hear You.” But even there, Memphis is only referred to: It’s the place where the distanced father lives, and the action takes place largely in phone conversations with his daughter. There is no sense of kinship here. Instead there is a yearning for community. Take the ambiguous catfight at the core of “Big Cats;” although it’s about anger, it’s also about connection.

Some stories are less populated than others, like “Africa,” an elegantly kinky chamber trio about Viennese horse sperm that puts sexuality in a whole new light. Some suggest the beginnings of a society, like “Seashell.” Here, Reinhorn probes a group of mentally retarded people who grope toward a social structure none of them can articulate. Again, Reinhorn easily occupies a different person’s mind. It’s a talent that transcends technique and makes her writing memorable. It also explains the restlessness that gives her writings its peculiar rhythm, and the way it cuts to the bone.

Take Brenda’s perception of Polly, her friend-rival in “Big Cats.” Polly’s sassy and rebellious, Brenda more prone to weltschmertz. As they change into their uniforms, Brenda stares at the flat-chested Polly, making her nervous. Polly bitches, then clams up.

Neither of us says anything while we’re dressing, and when she’s done, Polly leans up against a peeling birch whose papery bark crinkles as she rips big sheets of it away. I know she shouldn’t do that to the tree, but I’m scared to say anything even when there’s a smooth naked patch on the trunk that looks like it hurts.

Reinhorn peels away the motivations that drive us to hurt each other. She explores how society estranges, how, in “The Heights,” cruelty may be alluring and sensitivity costly. Her characters are, at first read at least, less memorable than her tone. But her tone and style are so strong you will want to revisit her book—not, perhaps, to make friends with her characters but to better understand your own story.

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