We Will Tell You Otherwise
By Beth Mayer
Black Lawrence Press: Aug. 20, 2019; 140 pages; $18.95
SYNOPSIS: Mayer’s debut is a potent collection of 16 mostly short stories (but not flash fiction) that examine family life with a gimlet eye. Mayer has a sardonic sensibility that cuts right to the crux of the matter. Her characters are caught in webs of their own creation or ones they don’t see until they walk into it. They are recognizable types whom we think we know, but they turn out to be idiosyncratic or downright bizarre. Most of the stories have a twist that left me stunned, perplexed, or amused.
REVIEW: Every story has the word “tell” in the title, which intrigued me before I even began reading: “Don’t Tell Your Mother,” “What We Tell Ourselves,” “Psychic Suzy Tells Me the Future,” and “Why Not Tell the Girl the Truth.”
In the opening “Don’t Tell Your Mother,” a boy goes night fishing in Lake Michigan with his doctor father and witnesses a violent altercation and his first death. We soon learn why that might be a good thing, even for a seven-year-old. “When the Saints Tell Their Own” lets us look in on an eccentric family with a son who is either brilliant or mentally ill, or perhaps both, and a daughter who is in the throes of a spiritual transformation, through which she views the surprising events of the story.
“Darling, Won’t You Tell Me True” is told through a series of letters from a son who has long been estranged from his mother to the local woman who is serving as the executor of her estate. In “Let Her Tell the Way,” a mother and her two children set out on a long-planned driving vacation to Niagara Falls without the father, a funeral director who feels he must remain home to handle a local family’s arrangements.
“The Ghost of L.T. Bowser Tells What Really Went Down” is a two-page character sketch that telegraphs an entire life. The superior and self-absorbed narrator “explains” everything, but very little of it means what he thinks it does. In “What the Universe Tells Marta,” we take a slow elevator ride with the title character after her yoga class; she hopes for a few solitary moments but is joined by an administrative assistant and an exterminator, who proceed to talk about why the latter is in the building.
Mayer has a gift for voice that makes each story convincing, whether it features formal diction from the first half of the 20th century or a contemporary conversational tone. The dialogue is realistically quirky. But coursing through all these stories is a distinctly Upper Midwest (i.e., Minnesotan) worldview that is alternately charming and darker than the characters realize.
This is a book you’ll read quickly, but the characters and their dilemmas will stay with you.