Baby’s On Fire: Stories
By Liz Prato
Press 53: May 3, 2015
126 pages, $14.95
Portland-based writer Liz Prato makes an impressive debut with her story collection, Baby’s On Fire. The dozen stories here pull no punches in addressing the stark reality of the challenges and frustrations faced by her characters.
Her characters are lost, searching for real families, real love, a sense of belonging, and both emotional and economic stability. The stories aren’t pretty, the characters are not especially charming, and the plots are dark. But these are real people, recognizable to anyone who is even partially aware of how difficult life can be.
Prato is a truth-teller of the raw, unvarnished sort, something we need more than ever today.
In the opening title story, Jude has just graduated college in Colorado but has no job, no car, no prospects, and no idea what to do. Her father suggests she head home to Portland to stay with her mother and younger brother, Spencer. She sends her books, collection of vinyl, and winter clothes ahead and arrives to some bad news.
“’Honey.’ Mom reached across the emergency brake and held my hand. ‘I don’t know how to tell you this.’ ‘Tell me what?’ ‘There was a fire,’ she said. ‘It burned down the house. There’s nothing left.’ ‘That’s bullshit.’ Cold air burned my lungs like dry ice. There was no way our house really burned down. They would have told me before I moved almost halfway across the country to live in it. ‘Why would you say that?’”
The three of them move into a modest hotel, and Jude learns that her old boyfriend, Jimmy, is hosting a party to raise money for them. Their reunion is alternately awkward and intense, and Jude leaves unsettled. She and her 17-year-old brother visit the burned out ruins of their house, which brings their issues — and the story — to a boil. A glimmer of hope shines through like the spark of a new fire being fanned into life.
In “The Adventures of a Maya Queen,” Laurie and Peter travel to Belize and then on to the Tikal ruins in Guatemala, but only Laurie is a true adventurer, determined to squeeze everything out of the experience, to the detriment of their relationship.
In “Cool Dry Ice,” a businesswoman has a layover in Denver and meets up with her ex-boyfriend in the airport bar. They reach out to each other across the emotional distances, but their lives and needs have changed and no longer align. This is one connection that can’t be made.
The first of the collection’s three standout stories is “Riding to the Shore.” It is the literal and figurative heart of the collection, the equivalent of the slowly building heartbreaker at the end of side one on your favorite old album. Ginny works at the Eureka Diner, while her partner Deb works as a housekeeper at a motel and worries about the cancer Ginny is struggling to ignore. When Ginny’s daughter, Christy, comes up from UCLA for a visit, her disapproval of her mother’s relationship, and of Deb in particular, brings life and death issues to a head.
“Christy used to come stay with us for a week in April and another at Christmas and for six long ones in the summer. That was before she turned eighteen, when she still had to do what the custody agreement said. Too bad that agreement said nothing about looking me in the eyes, or saying anything more than ‘Let me talk to my mom’ when she called, which wasn’t real often. Not since Ginny got sick. Not since I was left to handle it all.” Later, Deb adds, “I was pretty sure that girl didn’t care one bit how hard I’d had it, working full time and driving Ginny to the clinic, cooking and cleaning and wondering if there’d ever be fun again.”
Resentments have festered too long, and this visit will differ from the others. Deb insists it’s time to treat Christy like an adult, one with obligations she has failed to fulfill. And Ginny’s condition provides the catalyst for the needed change.
“Minor League Lessons” is perhaps the best example of how Prato gets the details just right, giving her stories a documentary feel that adds to their grittiness. Here, we catch up with Jason, a former baseball player who only made it as far as Triple A, where he became addicted to various substances. Eight years later, he is a high school baseball coach in Santa Fe and in a relationship with Toni, a college dropout and supermarket checker who lives in a studio on the five-acre property of an eccentric older woman named Jasmine. Jason has a heart of gold when it comes to his grandmother Bimbi, who lives in the Anasazi Meadows retirement village. His frequent visits keep both their spirits up. But when Bimbi meets Jasmine, Toni, and Manny (Jasmine’s cook), Jason’s haunted past and wavering recovery combine to present a compelling opportunity.
“A Proportional Response,” the penultimate story, is the third standout in Baby’s On Fire. Prato explores the tension in a new friendship between a young couple with anti-war sentiments and the single mother next door. Libby and Jack have ended up at Suzanne’s house for Thanksgiving by virtue of their teenage daughters’ burgeoning friendship. The plot is set in motion when Suzanne’s ex-husband, Randy, a Navy officer, joins them for dinner, which, not surprisingly, raises Libby’s hackles.
The reason is not a secret; Libby reveals it in the story’s opening lines. “I hate military guys. I have hated military guys ever since their war games caused my friends’ plane to be bombed over Lockerbie in 1988…. If I had believed, for one second, that Mandy’s dad was actually in the Navy, I wouldn’t have accepted Suzanne’s invitation for Thanksgiving dinner.”
The tension builds in their after-dinner conversation, as Libby and Randy engage in some verbal fencing. Mandy had told Libby that her father was stationed in Mongolia, and when Libby asks Randy about it, Mandy claims she doesn’t even know where Mongolia is. “Isn’t it landlocked?” Suzanne asks. “’Not a lot of need for Naval presence in Mongolia,’ Randy agrees. ‘Not a lot of need for Naval presence in a lot of places,’ I say. ‘’I guess my bosses think differently,’ Randy says. ‘I just go where they tell me.’”
As the evening proceeds, Libby realizes that Randy doesn’t quite fit her stereotype of a military man. In the following days, the tension transforms into something potentially much more dangerous. Libby’s obsession with the Lockerbie bombing is more intensely personal than at first revealed, and Randy knows a great deal about the Navy’s war games in the Strait of Hormuz, the downing of an Iranian passenger jet, and who was responsible for bombing the Pan-Am jet over Lockerbie, Scotland. He knows what a “proportional response” looks like. What Randy knows might just be enough to help Libby find peace of mind.
Liz Prato’s stories held me rapt while I worried about whether her characters would keep it together and, with a little bit of luck or some good decisions, improve their difficult and desperate lives. Her ability to telegraph a lot of back story in a few sentences or a line or two of dialogue makes these stories crackle with intensity and import. They are even better on second reading, always a sign of a good writer. While I still prefer what I would call a more traditional, elegant approach to prose and short stories (Alice Munro, William Trevor, Flannery O’Connor, John Updike, Katherine Anne Porter, Graham Greene, Nadine Gordimer, and recent writers such as Francesca Marciano, Lauren Groff, Jennifer Haigh, and Joan Wickersham), the edgier work of contemporary practitioners like Liz Prato, Vanessa Blakeslee, Jamie Quatro, Dorthe Nors, and Jessica Keener makes a strong case for the modern approach. I look forward to reading Prato’s next book.