By Lisa Lenzo
Wayne State University Press, May 2019
$18.99, 191 pages
Among current practitioners of the art of the short story, Liza Lenzo has a unique style and voice. Her stories are so natural that the art behind them is invisible. Instead, you feel like a good friend is telling you about people and incidents in her life. Part of the reason for that is that Lenzo writes about people and places we don’t often hear about – folks who are trying to figure out how to live their lives in small towns in western Michigan or amidst the challenges of Detroit.
In her last collection, the novel-in-stories Strange Love, Lenzo introduced divorced mother Annie Zito and her daughter Marly, following them over the course of two decades as Annie copes with the complexities of being a single mother who tries to remain optimistic about finding love again, despite frequent mishaps on both counts. It’s a remarkably human, insightful collection.
Unblinking moves from the western Michigan of Strange Love to Detroit, where Lenzo grew up. Perhaps its greatest strength is Lenzo’s ability to examine the realities of Detroit, past and present, black and white, with eyes wide open. She doesn’t shy away from addressing the economic devastation or the racism that has long bedeviled the city. But the focus is on the lives being lived there.
Annie Zito returns as the protagonist in two stories. In “Spin,” she and her husband drive across the state to visit her elderly parents and take them to an old jazz club in downtown Detroit. The evening strays off course from the start, when it begins to snow. Then the valet turns out to be a homeless man attempting to pocket the parking fee. But there’s more to him and the entire circumstance than meets the eye.
“Lorelei” is a touching and funny story about a wheelchair-bound senior citizen who rides Annie’s bus around Saugatuck and never fails to make her job more difficult with her poor hygiene and temperamental behavior. Annie had been raised in a multiracial neighborhood by liberal and idealistic parents, but she has a problem with Southern whites like Lorelei. You can probably guess where this is going, a bit like Annie’s bus route, but what happens along the way is a pleasant surprise.
The final two stories focus on Annie’s elderly parents, Ralph and Rosie, who have lived in a condo in downtown Detroit for decades, long after Annie left town to go to college and ended up living in western Michigan. The neighborhood has changed but Ralph and Rosie have remained, devoted to their home and each other. Ralph’s physical and mental health have deteriorated, confining him to a wheelchair, but they’re too old for any drastic changes.
In the title story, they decide to make a late afternoon trip to the market, with Rosie pushing Ralph along, hoping to get back before dark. But the situation proves more difficult than they anticipated, time slips away, and they find themselves on the street as darkness approaches. Then Ralph needs help that Rosie can’t provide, and a group of four teenage boys, in hoodies and parkas, is approaching, one of them walking a pit bull and all of them laughing. Rosie taught high school math for many years and a young Ralph walked with Dr. King from Selma to Montgomery. And yet Rosie isn’t sure how their encounter will unfold in today’s Detroit. While Lenzo deals with racial groups, she always maintains her characters’ individuality.
The other six stories in Unblinking introduce us to a range of characters and conflicts.
In the opening story, “In the White Man’s House,” the narrator is a middle-aged black man looking back at the time in high school when he and his friends attended a basketball playoff against a school from a wealthy white neighborhood.
“Up in the Air” is an alternately funny and sad story about a blues guitarist who has learned to live well in a wheelchair following a fall from a tree as a young man. His problem now, as he tours the country with his wife Claudine, is that she is jealous of the fans who flirt with him, convinced he’s been having affairs.
“I’ll Be Your Witness” finds two women, who were best friends in high school, bumping into each other at the market. It’s been ten years since they’ve seen each other; Tiff is now a librarian and Delia works at a bar. The former has gotten out of their inner-city neighborhood of Highland Park, while the latter has remained stuck there. Their encounter leads to an awkward evening together.
Lenzo’s characters are three-dimensional people trying to fulfill their dreams and manage their disappointments. The dialogue is natural and Lenzo’s observational skills remain sharp. Underlying everything is a sympathy for everyone in the pages of this satisfying collection of stories.