How flexible is the precocious genre-bending flash? To get an idea, check out Paul Beckman’s latest collection, Kiss Kiss, a master class for writer and reader alike. These 78 tautly-hewn stories are pushed to the edge, where they balance precipitously without ever once sliding down that slippery slope into vignette or left-handed exercise. The stories present perfectly-contained worlds in which small but powerful moments occur. Then, like any magician worth his salt, Beckman finishes with a flourish, pulling the tablecloth out from under our eyes so that we’re holding our breath, staring in amazement at the still-standing plates, forks, saucers.
Beckman’s fictional worlds are built upon the precise foundations of dazzling (and charmingly quirky) sentences: “I will only follow a redhead so far” (“Fantasy Party”), “Isn’t pilfering another word for sampling?” (“Semantics”), and “I now know if I take the 7am subway I’m liable to get groped, whereas, if I take the 6pm train back I’m almost certain to be groped” (“Commuter”). His sentences have maximum thrust providing a full-throttle ride until the very end.
The pitch-perfect story openings in this collection grab you by the lapels: “‘I forget why I’m telling you my innermost thoughts,’ I said to the shrink, Dr. Schmear” (“Lemon Pledge”) and “‘Try to understand the reason for my moving out,’ Mirsky told Elaine, his wife of 46 years” (“Mirsky’s Rebellion”). Or this undeniable grand gesture: “‘I play to win so don’t fuck with me,’ Grammy Esta said as she dealt out a hand of gin” (“A Visit From Grammy”).
Fans of Beckman’s earlier collections will be glad to see his modern-day Adam and Eve, characters Mirsky and Elaine, make repeat appearances in Kiss Kiss, and in “Mirsky’s Rebellion,” their tender and tense relationship is laid bare in the delightful verbal sparing of an old married couple. While many of these stories are fun and funny, others offer a serious and sometimes jaundiced view of life. In “Floaters,” Beckman lets the metaphor of seeing and eyes play out the real story of a relationship gone south. The narrator’s wife is floating away from him just as the floaters in his eyes have driven him to distraction–and the eye doctor.
In “Cars, Trains and Smoke Rings,” two young boys learn about sexual relations from spying on a neighbor on his lunch break. Beckman ends the story with a surprise ending that not only feels creepy but amazingly on the mark. “The Only Hope of the Jews,” about prejudice and the territorial strains of the city, uses a second-person point of view to make this poignant story even more telling by dropping readers into the narrator’s personal oppression and thus experiencing his sense of loss. “Chilling Memories” likewise describes a narrator’s return visit to his old childhood stomping ground with eerie, sad results.
Finally, Beckman shows his ample talent at creating off-center worlds that at first seem normal, but which turn out to be anything but. In “Epilogue,” the FBI visits a couple to give them the good news that their two daughters were not abducted five years before, as previously thought, but are in fact living in “mid-state Connecticut with two men they left with voluntarily.” Twists and turns ensue, the girls move back home, and in the end we’re left with the disconcerting idea that even though they plan to hang around a while, they might also decide to take off again. Beckman’s wonderful story is reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson and, yes, The Twilight Zone. As in all of these stories, his perfect brushstrokes reveal a self-contained world that is never really perfect, and when the author sets loose his characters anything can, and will, happen.
Like watching a stranger slip-foot on an icy sidewalk, or the sneaked kiss-kiss of a couple in the shadows, watching Beckman’s very short stories unfold on the page is sheer pleasure.
Publisher: Truth Serum Press (Australia) – http://truthserumpress.net
Release Date: Late March 2018