You Should Pity Us Instead, by Amy Gustine. Louisville, Kentucky: Sarabande Books, February 2016. 256 pages. $15.95, paper.
Amy Gustine’s first collection of stories demonstrates a remarkable range, not only in situation and character, but also in the vast landscapes of human emotion and reaction. The characters surprise the reader with what they’re willing to do, but they also surprise themselves. In the opening story “All the Sons of Cain,” a mother goes to heroic lengths to find her son, an Israeli solder, who has been captured by the enemy. She travels undercover, exposes herself to mortal danger, and breaks a pregnant girl’s water in the dark with copper scrap wiring, all the while questioning and testing what the bonds of motherhood encompass and what a parent will do for her child. The challenges and complications of motherhood are consistent themes in the stories—what it means to be a mother, the responsibility of the job, the constant vigilance one must maintain until one’s vigilance becomes its own form of threat.
The stories’ settings range from the Middle East to Ellis Island to Ohio, from 1880 to today. Gustine appears equally at home in all situations, with characters who do their best to fit the confines of their circumstances while still testing boundaries at every turn. She shows these characters’ dimensions, moving beyond what could too easily become pat. In “Prisoners Do” a young wife has suffered a stroke, and her husband is now having an affair. The wife is not simply the perfect woman the husband lost or a terrible partner he’s glad to have changed, but is instead a multidimensional character both in the now and in the past. Gustine inhabits all her characters—the crazy cat lover, the mistress—in ways that are believable and compassionate, smoothly revealing information and trusting readers to keep up. Gustine rides the knife’s edge of detail, distinguishing a poor woman’s possessions, for instance, as “nothing worth having, only worth not losing.”
The title story begins, “When Simon and Molly moved from Berkeley back to her hometown in Ohio, Molly was surprised to discover how many people still believed in God.” Simon has accepted the Chair of Philosophy at the local college and published a book that outs them as atheists, putting Molly at odds with the community. Along with this, her young children are beginning to question death and faith, her eighty-eight-year-old father is losing the aging fight, and the mom-drama in the neighborhood is at a suburban high. Gustine weaves these disparate lines together beautifully, crafting a story about friendship, kindness, and how we learn to believe in something, anything, recognizing the basic fact of believing in anything a tiny miracle. She ends the story with the kind of straightforward writing that makes this collection stand out, shocking in its simple honesty: “One thing [Molly] had learned—death is like God: it answers every question with silence, but that doesn’t mean it’s not waiting for you.”
Another of Gustine’s strengths is drawing connections between disparate moments in a person’s life, setting up how a moment or belief can haunt and shape a character. She has a knack for pairing a story from the past with one from the present; the stories might initially seem unrelated, but eventually the connections are revealed. In each case, the coupling of the stories works to deepen the present. In “Unattended” a woman with terrible earaches deals with her screaming baby and is reminded of her own childhood when her eardrum burst and her friends were abandoned by their mother. In “An Uncontaminated Soul” a woman rescues cats, haunted herself by the death of her parents, her partner, and the difficult ongoing relationship with her estranged family. In the end, she learns she’s not the only one who’s misunderstood and she questions her own assumptions. These interwoven stories aren’t used simply to explain the present—oh, if it were only that easy; instead the juxtaposition of both lines shows how a character can get from A to B, and also the effect A has had in the long term.
Gustine also shows range in her portrayals of gender and race. In “AKA Juan,” a black man, Lawan, is adopted as a child by a white woman, and struggles as an adult to understand his own conflicted feelings about race and family. In “When We’re Innocent,” a man is accused of a sexual crime, and an older man comes to clean out his dead daughter’s apartment.
Gustine can be harsh with the facts. In “When We’re Innocent,” regarding the daughter’s death, she writes, “The method: pills. The reason: no one knew.” And regarding the crime, she says, “Contact gets you a year. Penetration you’re looking at five to fourteen.” But it’s in the muddy waters of emotion where Gustine swims the deepest, realizing the complexities and contradictions of our everyday lives. She is willing to explore our most uncomfortable emotions—humiliation, revulsion, anger—yet realistically balances them with the most admirable ones—love, empathy, understanding, and even forgiveness.
Erin Flanagan is the author of two short story collections published by the University of Nebraska Press: The Usual Mistakes (2005) and It’s Not Going to Kill You, and Other Stories (2013). Her fiction has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Colorado Review, The Missouri Review, The Connecticut Review, the Best New American Voices anthology series, and elsewhere. She’s held fellowships to Yaddo, The MacDowell Colony, the Sewanee and Bread Loaf Writers’ conferences, and this summer served as faculty at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop.