Small, Explosive Things:
A Review of Assisted Living by Gary Lutz
The festering pink eye of a needle mark on a loved one's arm. A grenade rolling to a stop at the foot of a coffee table. Small in stature but huge in their psychic capacity, giant in their ability to inflict our imaginations with the pain of an unspeakable past or a terrifying near future.
Gary Lutz has created a small thing of this kind in Assisted Living, a collection of stories published earlier this year by Future Tense Books. Small, that is, the way dynamite is small: compact and explosive, tempting, deceptively slight in form.
The book looks and feels like a Moleskine notebook, one to be slipped into a clutch or a back pocket. Screen-printed and staple-bound to modest DIY specs in an artfully low-stakes presentation. But inside, four short stories peel away from their physical form like enlightened souls ascending from shriveled bodies. They are strange, mysterious, beautiful. And delightfully polished.
In length, the stories vary nicely, as if, even in such a tiny package, Lutz felt compelled to resist tedium of any kind. All but the longest would, by contemporary measures, fit the description of flash fiction, although that term is not used anywhere by the author or publisher to describe these stories. Instead, they are simply called "fictions." Sentence by sentence these fictions whistle and snap and hand-jive their way into the heart of the reader in a way that recalls Grace Paley, with her two ears—one for literature and one for home—so that the reader spends the duration of each story catching up to its blaze. It's thrilling. Quick verbal jabs stand in for wisdom. Scrape away the callouses and what's beneath is tender and unborn. With middle age come and gone, receding like a hairline, what these narrators have learned is a way to talk fast, to elide their suffering and eat it, too. Because while the originality of the prose dazzles the senses, what's wrapped inside is the familiar succor of a common pain: the anguish that belies the hard-won gains of maturity.
"There wasn't enough testing of affections on each other. At most, one afternoon, I wound a couple of sidewalk-vendor necklaces around her wrists, which were thicker in the bone than mine, though who was I to be limbed so cleanly at fifty?" The narrator's paramour in this story, the title story, "Assisted Living," is described earlier as "Twenty-three, twenty-four . . . already sinking in a life of mild peril, of shortages sought out." He calls a former wife "a belonger last seen caught awkwardly in a crosswalk." By the time you figure out what any of this means, you're devastated by its accretion. These stories, in their piling on of blink-and-you-miss failures, are small lives of their own that seem to break and bleed and wither. And what they offer in the end is not so much a model for better living as it is palliative care for those who have survived the better part of a modern life.
In the second story, "You Are Logged In as Marie," a twice-divorced sad sack hiccups his way through a list of families past, with "a daughter in cram school" and a son who is "prematurely worn, still ungrown," both "from a bygone wife." But it's a more recent split with a later wife that approximates the story's inciting incident.
My ex-spouse: Her past was so frozen now in anecdote, it couldn't be accessed other than through quips.
Girlihood, as she'd called it? Her parents had thrown things at her to eat.
What she said did not deliver you directly to a personality. It ran you around her.
I'd been her doorstop, her kickstand—something, I mean, kickedly and meanly hers.
With four first-person narrators whose voices overlap and who speak of other characters in terms we recognize as pot-kettle affinity, all black, the temptation as a reader is to assign all of this to Mr. Lutz, the author. But the stories are too skillful to let the heavy blows land hard. Too quick. Instead, they keep moving, keep talking, keep slipping past. Some of the narrators are women, some men, all in command of their presentation of themselves in a way that calls everything into question—and settles those questions in the same breath. Lutz is after what we might call (borrowing from Werner Herzog) an ecstatic truth. Never mind who actually did what to whom. Never mind the science of aging. Never mind modest improvements in sound and picture quality. What we see is an impression of life on a life, and in this short collection we cannot turn away.
The final story, "Nothing Clarion Came of Her Either," is another catalog of the details of another marriage undone, ostensibly by its openness, "leaking from both ends." The narrator goes to see her wife in an assisted living home, some time after the two women have split, long after they have finished suffering together. The narrator has to sign into the log book like everyone else, and wade through puddles of blank stares, until finally she finds her ex. "It was one of those days when it finally just comes to you—when to end a conversation, I mean, and when to renew an ordeal."
Assisted Living by Gary Lutz
Future Tense Books
Publication Date: January 31, 2017
W.S. Lyon is Split Lip Magazine's Reviews/Interviews Editor. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from Vanderbilt University, where he was Interviews Editor for the Nashville Review. He is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Review of Books, and, in an earlier decade, produced documentary films that aired on HBO and PBS. He now lives in Princeton, NJ.