Another in a series of posts from other authors on the work of Merrill Joan Gerber--an author you should seriously track down and read. Today we have Rachel Swearingen writing about two story collections that Gerber published 20 years apart from each other.
One of the pleasures of reading Merrill Joan Gerber’s short story collections, Stop Here, My Friend (1963) and Honeymoon (1983), is tracing the development of the writer and her recurring characters. Gerber is masterful in turning the reader into confidante. In Stop Here, My Friend, written when the author was still in her twenties, she writes about women of various ages in New York City, Arizona, and Florida—mothers and daughters in the snare of family duty. She has been compared to Bellow, Roth, and Updike, but Gerber’s characters are unlikely to ever abandon their obligations for other adventures, and this simple fact is at the crux of many of these stories. Instead, Gerber’s women grow older and take care of children, husbands, siblings, and aging parents, all the while silently storing their own hard-earned wisdoms and their families’ complicated histories.
These tensions persist in Honeymoon, though social mores and expectations have relaxed somewhat, and California replaces New York as a prominent setting. The submerged dramas rarely erupt, but in this later collection, they boil and grow more complex, and the language loosens and in places turns richly, if briefly, lyrical.
Gerber, now in her seventies, has written over thirty books, sixteen of which have been released as eBooks by Dzanc Books as part of their rEprint Series. Her stories have appeared in numerous magazines, including The New Yorker, Sewanee Review, Redbook, and Atlantic Monthly. She studied with William Stegner at Stanford and has a style reminiscent of Grace Paley, Ray Carver, and Ann Beattie.
In the title story of Stop Here, My Friend, Kate fixates on a mother and daughter sharing an intimate lunch in a Chinese restaurant, telling us “she had always supposed there were mothers and daughters like this pair.” Kate is thirty-one and living with her parents, injecting insulin in her mother’s thigh every night with “a silver syringe,” and coming home each evening to a “neat glass of tomato juice arranged on a saucer between two Ritz crackers.” She wants her own apartment, but her parents are entirely dependent on her. She resists in small ways, throwing out the sandwiches her mother makes her and instead spending her money in restaurants—and daring to view a closet-sized walkup that is for rent. In a moment of boldness, Kate decides to take the apartment, but a few sentences later she reaches into her purse and discovers the fortune cookie from her lunch, “and grimly, grimly, she cracked it open.” The fortune is never revealed, and the “grimly, grimly” makes it implicit that Kate will return to her parents.
This grimness marks most of these early stories. Kate, like other young women in the book, grew up changing out of school dresses into “dungarees,” taking piano lessons, and being expected to marry good, “barmitzvahed” boys. This is a middle-class, post WWII, pre-Steinem world, where references to the “colored maid” appear, where women wear gloves, and there are just two kinds of girls, “good” and “fast.”
My favorite stories features smart, adolescent girls that ferret out discrepancies in adult stories and performances. In “Miss Mosh,” Marilyn, who hates playing the piano, has to endure endless lessons taught by incompetent neighborhood teachers. Marilyn meets her match in Miss Moss, a charlatan of a teacher who wears “some sort of terrible-smelling pomade on her wiry red hair, so that now she looked like a well-groomed porcupine.”
When her teacher’s behaviors grow too strange and cruel, Marilyn revolts and locks herself in the bathroom where she opens her teacher’s hidden suitcase and discovers a pink nightgown. “The feather stuffing in the garment was not distributed equally. In the front, or bosom of the slip, were two large shapeless mounds of feathers sticking out, giving the empty piece of underclothing a strange, living air. In the back, over the hips, was the same kind of stuffed feather mound, making the slip thrust out as if it had a bustle.”
Misfit, most likely transgendered, Miss Mosh veers dangerously close to the stereotypical eccentric, unmarried piano teacher, but Gerber reveals her in all her vulnerability and humanity. This turn appears in many of the early stories, and more subtly in later pieces that deal realistically with such difficult subjects as mental illness and domestic violence.
One of Gerber’s gifts is her dialogue. In Honeymoon, especially, she captures rich rhythms, pathos and wit. Take Janet’s Aunt Gertie, for example, bemoaning Janet’s widowed mother’s refusal to re-engage with the world: “But when I told her the program is going to be a paramedic teaching the methods of how do you call it, cardio-heart-massage, which is such a valuable thing to know at our age, what did your mother say? … she said ‘What do I need it for? To do it to myself, alone, someday in my apartment, when I have my heart attack?’”
Gerber explores several unreliable narrators and incorporates vibrant, barbed argument between family members and even neighbors. In “Straight from the Deathbed,” we revisit Edna, Martha’s mother-in-law from Stop Here, My Friend. Edna’s late-husband has made her promise to apologize to Martha for their initial terrible treatment of her. Edna can’t bring herself to grant this dying wish, though she is fond of Martha now and grateful for the grandchildren. She would “give her eyes” to see her husband spoil the children’s appetite with candy, a habit that used to annoy her. Instead she argues with and badgers her son until he threatens to take the family and leave. The anger mounts to near cataclysm, everyone sits down to eat, and overcome with guilt and anxiety, Edna breaks out her husband’s gumdrops, warning the children not eat too many.
In both books, Gerber’s characters give generously and often reluctantly. They sneak gefilte fish into nursing homes for their mothers. They feed entire packages of hotdogs to barking, distressed dogs they earlier fantasized about poisoning. They hide instructions for their burials in their pianos, so as not to burden their daughters. They spill bits of tragic family legend, while hiding crucial information.
Gerber's structures are linear and deceptively simple, but this combined withholding and generosity creates an undertow. Strikingly, her characters rarely succumb to despair. They love fiercely and faithfully, even when the people they care for are failing or incapable of change. I read these books quickly, and weeks later the characters linger. It's entirely plausible that somewhere, in Brooklyn or Los Angeles perhaps, Martha, Janet, and all the rest are still trying like the rest of us to live the best they can.