A peep show of violence, self-contempt, and tender regret

By Meredith Hall
April 19, 2009
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By Mary Gaitskill
Pantheon, 226 pp., $23.95

Mary Gaitskill's new collection of short stories, "Don't Cry," seems, in fact, to be three separate collections pursuing three philosophies about women, sexuality, and love in three different voices. The first stories are difficult to read; women are highly sexualized and vulgarized, and violence against women is fetishized. In the middle stories, women have some control over their lives and their bodies, but men are portrayed as weak and women as dark and contaminated. The final stories explore love and loss, mothering and sexuality, longing and betrayal.

The movement through these stories is remarkable, causing the reader to wonder in what order they were written. As presented, the collection seems to be a study of the process of reckoning with the darkest sexual urges and love's most tender hungers.

"Folk Song," the most disturbing tale in the book, juxtaposes three news tales: After the torture and murder of a woman and her daughter, the woman's parents arrange for the confessed murderer to appear on a talk show so they can hear the details "only [he] could tell them" of the last minutes of their daughter's and granddaughter's lives; a woman in San Francisco announces her goal of breaking a record by having intercourse with 1,000 men; and two giant turtles, a mating pair, are stolen from the Bronx Zoo. Gaitskill draws us close to revulsion as, in a distant and cool voice, she fantasizes disturbing scenes, connecting femaleness with grisly and repugnant sexuality.

In the second "movement" of the collection, we find less incendiary themes for "An Old Virgin," the story of Laura, a nurse who has just lost her father. Here and in other stories, men are presented as physically small and weak, and women as victims of their own self-contempt. Always linking the body to filth, Gaitskill tells us that when Laura's father is brought home to die, the plumbing backs up and sewage came out of the bathtub drain. Laura tries to tell her sister about a strange thought she has about her father. "He's not your enemy now," her sister interrupts. "He's dying."

The story closes with a dream-like sequence in which sex and violence are threatened by a young Hispanic boy driving past. Laura draws his eyes to her and thinks, "You are good. What you have is good." The boy is stunned into confusion and drives on, and Laura walks home feeling "so replete and grateful that she wondered if she were crazy."

This theme of boys needing to be reminded by women - mothers, wives, lovers - that they are good and worthy and necessary appears again in the fine story "The Little Boy," which opens the third and strongest movement in the collection. Bea Davis is waiting for her connecting flight at the Detroit airport, where she meets a small boy, Michael, who is traveling with his poor and self-absorbed mother. The story is a gorgeous layering of memory and the present moment, of generations, of characters known intimately and those momentarily observed in the large airport.

Here Gaitskill moves into an almost lyrical exploration of love, loss, mistakes and regret, betrayal and its resentments carried over a lifetime, of aging and fear, and back again to love. Michael comes to Bea like a memory, and she recognizes his plea: "Love me. See me. Love me." Bea answers, "I see you. You are a wonderful boy and you will grow into a wonderful man. I love you." Bea is calling back to her dead husband, to their lovemaking, to their daughters, to her father's childhood and her own, as lives are braided together tenderly.

In the title story, "Don't Cry," Janice, a university English teacher we meet in other stories, accompanies her friend Katya on her journey to Ethiopia in a desperate attempt to adopt a baby. Janice, middle-aged and childless, has just lost her husband to Alzheimer's. She and Katya wake on their first morning to the sounds of a wedding. "The music," she says, "touched my grief even before I knew it was wedding music. Even in my sleep, I could hear love in it; even in my sleep, I could hear loss."

That grief deepens as she slips into the chaotic and dark world of independent adoption, even as Katya's yearning for a child heightens at every obstacle. Grief and love, longing and loss, capability and impotence tangle fiercely in this long, action-filled story. Finally, as Addis Ababa falls into revolutionary chaos, these two women succeed in bullying the bureaucracy into allowing Katya to claim Sonny, a tiny, ill baby who shines with the light of his hunger for love and life. His care falls to Janice while Katya struggles to secure documents. Helping him take his first steps, Janice says with great love, "Look . . . Look, my husband, my father, my lover, my child: Look at this little boy and bless him."

Gaitskill crosses a continent in this collection, with the boundaries on one side being "a gross hash of sorrow and desire," and on the other a haunting longing to love and be loved. In these later stories, Gaitskill seems to have traveled through a lifetime of perception, moving in a progression from raw and violently sexualized to tender and regretful, with every character knowing the intimacy and exhaustion of sorrow.

Meredith Hall is author of the memoir "Without a Map."

DON'T CRY By Mary Gaitskill

Pantheon, 226 pp., $23.95