People Like You, by Margaret Malone. Portland, Oregon: Atelier26 Books, November 2015. 150 pages. $16.00, paper.
The title story of Margaret Malone’s debut collection begins with an unhappy married couple getting invited to a surprise party, getting lost on the way, and arguing in the car. Malone draws the argument out for longer than most writers would—three and a half pages of the couple snapping at each other for missing the exit, calling their friend and asking for directions, hiding in the car so as not to ruin the surprise. The prolonged and petty exchange paints an excruciating portrait of familiarity bordering on nastiness, and Malone follows it with a paragraph that blows the story open:
I look around the party and realize two things. One, I hate parties. Parties are strangers and someone else’s idea of music and the overt pressure to talk to the strangers over the volume of the music while appearing to have a good time. Two, there are three other women present, and they are all pregnant. A tender spot: my eggs are no good.
Suddenly the small criticisms and unsaid slights have a new meaning. Suddenly the story has a core of pain. Over the course People Like You‘s nine stories, Malone proves herself a master of revealing subtext her characters would rather not think about. The married couple from the title story reappear several times, and their stories seethe with unhappinesses about the difficulties of getting pregnant. The narrator of “The Things We Know Nothing About” is pregnant and creates elaborate justifications for her drinking. “Yes,” a story about a newly engaged couple’s road trip to Reno with the groom’s mother, brims with an understated adolescent expansiveness and a tolerance for bad decision-making. It ends with a dazzling run-on sentence where the narrator recalls the ride she and her fiancé take on his motorcycle, their “bodies intuitively leaning left and right with the weight of the beautiful machinery underneath” them, the “smell of dusty heat and warmed pavement and the cool damp of the forest floor,” her “whole body … singing with the abandon of being part of every single thing.” The narrator wonders, “Who needs a wedding when I’ve known a thing like that.”
Passages like the end of “Yes” made me wish Malone would cut loose more often. Her characters are wound down so tightly it’s a relief when the prose gets to soar. Overly expressive or lyrical language, however, seems to be antithetical to Malone’s desired effect, a kind of pointilism of letdowns and small kindnesses. In the standout piece, “Good Company,” another story about a young narrator sharing close quarters with her boyfriend’s family, Malone carefully draws the shortcomings and bright spots of each character, showing us detail after detail: the guest bedroom door that won’t shut all the way, the narrator and her boyfriend’s sexual issues, the father’s passive-aggressive jabs that hide a “reluctant kindness,” and the ill mother’s rough silence. It’s a quiet story, but beneath its minimal prose is a beating heart.
I finished People Like You on a crowded red-eye and couldn’t stop thinking about Malone’s characters. I saw the nastiest parts of myself reflected in them. “Am I really like these people?” I wondered. “Or could I be, if my life bent a certain way?” With all their specific little joys and sorrows, it felt like they were sitting all around me in the dark plane, their lives as rich and circumscribed and briefly illuminated as my own—people like me.
Ian Denning’s work has appeared in New Ohio Review, Washington Square Review, Five Chapters, and elsewhere. He lives in Seattle, tends bar at Hugo House, and tweets at @iandenning85.