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.