People seem to be paying a bit more attention to the short story, with the success of, for example, George Saunders, Karen Russell, and Junot Díaz. I’m pleased to say that, while more conventional in structure and writing style than those three, I found a better set of short stories in Half as Happy (2013). Where the writers I just mentioned often use voice and speed to pull us along, Spatz employs an older style of long sentences and long paragraphs to make us dwell in thoughts and moments. I began the collection late one night, just to get a feel. I’m not ashamed to say I was tired the next day.
The first of the eight stories, “Any Landlord’s Dream,” explores time, dreams, and disappointment in a story that is primarily about a failing marriage, but often zooms out to show how these themes are always present. The setting is a house a landlord has been trying to rent for some time. Sitting vacant, it has washed away some of the more obvious traces of its past inhabitants. Toward the beginning of the story, a young couple comes to the home. They are so infatuated with it and with each other, they end up making love against the outside wall.
They were, in most ways, not ready for what they were dreaming as they went at it, that afternoon, against the wall outside. It didn’t ruin them, exactly, seeing their application turned down, but for a time it gave what followed in their lives an aura of failure, of having “settled,” which played its part in their eventual breakup.
In just a couple of sentences, Spatz takes us from their high to their disappointment, which can’t, in this case, quite be called disillusionment.
The couple that ends up renting the home have been married for five years. We get a glimpse at the time they met and fell in love. “And now here they were, five years later and contemplating the unmaking of all that — contemplating the ruin of a life together, and not even saying so.” They have come to the house as a kind of escape after their first child died shortly after childbirth, a life that didn’t quite begin. “So, it was a temporary shift, a change of scenery — stop-over, lateral jump — nothing upward or permanent about it; like trading one life-raft for another.”
After we learn a bit about this couple, Spatz takes us back in time to give us a glimpse at other lives that have crossed this ground — forgotten lives:
Before being a house this had been a marshy stand of ninebark pine trees, birch, Saskatoon and blueberry bushes, spring-fed, and high enough on the south facing slope of the hill that it was warm well into the fall and quick to thaw with each vernal equinox. Once, as part of his vision quest, a boy from the local tribe had spent several days and nights here bivouacked among the trees, alone, waiting and fasting, watching the stars wheel and circle back around again; squirrels, ravens, rabbits, finches, eagles, countless insects came and went.
This is one of those beautiful long paragraphs that expands the scope of the story (others will narrow the scope and dig deeply). Soon, the houses come along:
The undergrowth was cut them, the spring capped, the land shaved and reshaped, and up went the house. In its core, still, was the capped spring. Two men had died here; three marriages were broken; eighteen children grown to adulthood. Twenty-six makes of car had parked in the garage or on the paved area outside, and two RVs. Nine signed bank notes. Twelve rental agreements. No boats. No one who lived here had ever owned a boat — only one prospective tenant had dreamed of it, against the south facing wall, and had perhaps been ruined by the dream.
One of the other tragedies of this stories is that the husband starts to recover from his grief sooner than his wife does. This may sound like a familiar tale, but Spatz doesn’t take us where we expect. After all, the title is “Any Landlord’s Dream,” referring, it seems, to these tenants, but the story also returns to the landlord and to what he witnesses.
I enjoyed, but was not taken by the second story, but was again brought into the collection when in the third, “No Kind of Music,” Spatz uses those long sentences. When the story begins, a man, whose wife has recently left him, is watching a divine music performance. Everything seems perfect, the performers angelic:
He knew this was a fiction — any player up close was a lot of suffering joints and contradictory impulses, bad breath, weak eyesight, creaky digestion (he’d talked with them at fundraiser events and a few times following open rehearsals, enough to have witnessed all of this and more); if there were evidence of magical or divine connections to be beheld in them it showed in the raw skin of their fingertips, bitten nails and torn cuticles, chapped mouths — all of the places where they’d worn through themselves trying and trying and loving the music so habitually, so imperfectly over the years.
At first the man is somewhat invigorated by his new singleness, but it doesn’t last. The sublime classical music . . . is it making things worse?
Perhaps my favorite story in the collection was “A Bear for Trying,” about twins Karl and Eber. It begins mysteriously and yet showcases Spatz comic gift as well when we learn about Karl’s predicament: how can he remove all of the glass figurines that have been super-glued to the dashboard?
Half as Happy gives us lives that have already gone through despair and are now on the brink of willful oblivion — a delicate position, perfect for Spatz’s delicate rhythm. I highly recommend this collection.