Sherrie Flick, Whiskey, Etc., Queen's Ferry Press, 2016
Reviewed by JoAnna Novak
Today I finished a cross-country drive. It began five days ago, on a Friday, twenty-four hours after I finished reading Sherrie Flick's debut collection of short (short) stories, Whiskey, Etc. The book is divided into seven sections, each containing vignettes ranging from several paragraphs to several pages in length. Minutes, miles: I plotted out my big drive to include stops in cities where I knew people: I wanted couches on which to sleep.
My journey's first leg ended in Syracuse, New York. I brought my host a gift, a pair of takeout tacos; he poured me some rosé. After dinner, he put on a record. Jazz. My wine was gone, but as I sat on the couch and scanned the album's liner notes, I failed to concentrate. I had already read—once, maybe twice—about Art Pepper.
"My father liked to listen to Moby when he had to drive," said my host. He was still drinking, and I watched his gaze go cloudy. He was remembering his father's livelihood—and on the day of his parents' fortieth wedding anniversary. Every year we were getting older, my host and myself.
I'm not sure what my host was sipping at this point, but he swallowed. It could've been tequila: he'd infused a batch—with smoke?!—himself.
"He likes music that lets him forget he's in time," my host said. He went on to talk about the virtues of road music—no lyrics—and I vaguely listened. I was bored of suggestions. I only perked up when he began imagining the lives of truck drivers: the arduousness, the hours, the sore hips. I offered up a tidbit about lot lizards; I closed my eyes on the couch and thought about Flick's collection, where the women are hardboiled—sometimes—but life's least picturesque moments are given top billing. She doesn't write about lot lizards, but fleeting interactions need not be founded on sexual currency to seem unseemly.
You come to expect things of people the longer you know them, and those expectations—when met—can be both warming and wearying, depending on the context. My mother stresses about parties, small family gatherings, namely, in which bowl to put the Hidden Valley Ranch dip. Which bowl? The wooden one or the cut crystal? I love my mother, and on the other side of the country—my destination—who knows how many parties will take place before I next see her.
In Whiskey, Etc., Flick's short (short) stories, en masse, reveal ticks and trademarks that both endear and enervate. By the latter, I mean no disrespect. I wondered, halfway through the first section of the collection: should all these stories be read back-to-back? Should shorts be binged consumed? Isn't reading a bulk of them a bit like eating an entire box of bean-to-bar chocolates? An embarrassment of riches, a dulling of the differences.
So, I liked noticing Flick's affinity for anaphora in stories such as "Unlocking," where, in three consecutive paragraphs, anaphora engineers the compulsion of one character, Sarah. "She wanted to call Steven," "she wanted to hear him" begin the first two sentences in one paragraph; in the next, "she wondered if she had become one of those people" and "she wondered if finally it would be her sitting at those parties"; and, in the following, "it seemed like the answer should come easily" and "it seemed as if everything should be easy after surviving a night with Big Walt."
On the other hand, noticing such tendencies in consecutive stories—which, I should add, are not decidedly connected but, rather, thematically grouped—can be a bit disarming. A word—say, "pasty"—that pops up in a few short shorts begins to announce itself, at the very least; at the worst, it might come off as sloppy. Yet another possibility? That Flick, again and again, confidently illustrates her world. There is some beauty, some comfort, in consistency. Regardless of the container, Hidden Valley Ranch always tastes the same.
An acquaintance recommended a pizza place in Nebraska and, with a heavy heart, I pulled the toppings and cheese off a vegetarian pie at the desk of a La Quinta Inn in Lincoln. The shower curtain in the room was orange, but my mind was dark. Out in the lot, I saw a man lingering in his Suburban; when he went to talk to an old man sitting in the cab of his semi, I was sure shady orchestrations were in the works.
Surely, Flick's stories colored my view of the world. A narrator imagines microwaving a dog. A Thanksgiving dinner—minus two important players—is pantomimed. Much alcohol is consumed. Hope is parceled out like airplane peanuts. The aging process dissolves once competent minds.
Amplifying the gravity of these situations is Flick's compulsion to forecast. Her narrators almost need to be oracles. Again and again, the short (short) stories in Whiskey, Etc. gain power when they undercut the present moment. "Was it Indiana? Iowa? This was before Rob was gay. Before Christina's mom couldn't remember her name. Before I stopped eating. Before James's last postcard," Flick writes in "Road Trip."
The man and the truck driver talk in the Nebraska darkness, meet for Cajun coffee at a downtown café come 5 a.m. They plot a burglary, make a slick getaway, help me disappear. And suddenly, the sullen premonitions accompanying my vegetarian pizza mean something.
In Denver, I sit in the small living room of a young couple. I drink a gin martini. I am not thrilled with the martini: do I like gin? I am hungry, so I eat the olives. They're stuffed with jalapenos; they're so umami, I worry I might be eating meat.
At the same time, a large Apple monitor plays the music video for Mark Ronson's song, "Uptown Funk." Bruno Mars keeps Michael Jacksoning for the camera. And, in front of me, on a patch of shaggy rug, a two-year-old does sputtering donkey kicks.
Moments before, the child admired my yoga pants. They are nice, a mixture of Lycra and mesh, and the child's father caught his son staring at me.
"Do you like her pants?" said dad, who was once my friend.
He touched them and touched them. And then wanted to show me his dance.
The situation existed on two levels, like Flick's short stories. You should probably read Whiskey, Etc. if you've ever been in a mundane, not-so-weird sort of situation that just happens to rub you some way. To read Flick's prose is to don a pair of infrared goggles that allow you to see the sketchy bodily fluids on life's bedspreads. "After the storm," she writes in "Back," "my clock started running backwards." In this story, barely a page, a college-aged character's relationship dissolves. In another writer's hands, the situation—"soon I wouldn't be saying hi to Bob in philosophy class. Instead I would sit on the other side of the room and meet Steve, a kinder man"—would hardly seem story material. But Flick is an expert at finding the unnerving, the unusual, the exceptional in life's regularities. Using hyperbole and juxtaposition, her narrators capture the moments that warrant a sigh, a question, a pause.
Everyone who goes to the casino hopes. Everyone who stars in Whiskey, Etc. harbors willful thoughts.
Yoga Mat Table
It isn't that the stories in Whiskey, Etc. feel impromptu or makeshift like the table I construct from a cookbook and a yoga mat in my new apartment, but they do point to life's fussy corners. These are stories that honor regularity and its unpretentious ceremonies. Coffee is consumed; meals are prepared; sleep is slept; whatever wine is drunk. Big escapes are not devised; instead, small ways of coping are portrayed, and again and again those are the sorts of moves that, under Flick's capable watch, move characters across the country.