A slightly delayed post as its author was out of the country. From Philip F. Deaver:
Gary Forrester’s second book of fiction, The Connoisseur of Love, a collection of twelve short stories, some of them linked, is just out in New Zealand. His first work of fiction was the novel Houseboating in the Ozarks (Dufour Editions, 2006). The recent story collection’s unifying element is the (third person limited) narrator of all but one of the stories, Peter Becker, an attorney in his fifties and sixties (he ages over the time-span of the stories) who is currently employed as a public servant. Becker is an immigrant from a small town in Germany, living life in a second language (English) which, in the design of the book, he may stumble on in dialogue but moves through like a bird in a tree in narration.
In Peter Becker, Forrester creates an odd character trapped in his own internal life, a cross between Walter Mitty and Larry David’s character “Larry David” in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” with touches here and there of Meursault (The Stranger), Bartleby the Scrivener and, perhaps, Billy Pilgrim. Picture the most trapped-in-the-cul de sac-of-self individual you have ever encountered in life or fiction, quietly careening through his latter years in gentle Wellington with the external world mostly on “mute” or at least muffled like the adults in the “Peanuts” cartoons on TV. All through the collection, we find Peter either alone in his own thoughts or, for brief moments, lonely for connection to others, or, the saddest option, lost and self-conscious in some human interaction thrust upon him. He wasn’t born with social connective tissue. Marching in step with other members of the human race challenges him. The closest he comes to regular social interaction is in mixed doubles on the grass courts at Thorndon Tennis Club, where the lines are freshly chalked and clear and he can distract himself with his overly developed urgency to defeat whoever is on the other side of the net.
Thus the title of the collection is meant ironically. When in these stories Peter Becker isn’t sleeping alone in his house in Khandallah (not that love implies sleeping with someone), he’s sleeping there with a pile of tulips or a ukulele. Twice in these stories, Peter attempts to actually have a date. In one, a six foot tall Polynesian beauty from Bora Bora named Lavi captures his attention and he engages her in conversation. He has just refurbished a set of deckchairs he’s acquired, and he’s been sending out invitations in a rare attempt to gin up a party at his home. Lavi would be perfect to take the fifth chair! The guest list would be complete. Astonishly she says yes, she would come; they could meet later at a place where she works and firm things up. She gives him the name of the place where she works, a place with which he’s familiar. Some days later he goes there to meet up and firm up. Nobody there knows her or remembers anyone by her most lovely and memorable description. She hoodwinked him. He cancels the whole party, so put out is he by her cruel trick.
In another story an attractive woman from the travel agency on the lower level of his building gives him attention, it’s rare that someone gives him this kind of flirtatious attention, and he invites her to his house to watch a DVD—““Wild Orchid” to be exact. She accepts his invitation and furthermore promises to present him with a surprise on that occasion. The prospect excites him, especially the surprise. He goes to a floral shop to purchase beautiful tulips, gets in a twist over the price, haggles with the manager, and ends up walking out with two bunches at half price just so they can get his ass off the premises – this is the Larry David-esque Peter Becker. The pretty woman’s surprise, it turns out, is her husband, Erhard, who hails from the same area of Germany as Peter. The woman has happily planned to introduce Erhard and Peter so they could perhaps be friends and reminisce about the old country. Again Peter has selectively perceived what was going on, his heart leaping with the prospect of a date. That’s the night he slept with the tulips.
In a story aptly titled “Remote,” Peter narrates this sentence to himself.
“So far, this Sunday had been a disaster. His wife and daughter were gone for good, his clicker was missing in action, and here it was mid-afternoon and he hadn’t had a single latte.”
That in a nutshell is Peter Becker. Gary Forrester is a master of irony, and when you juxtapose this sentence with the title of his collection The Connoisseur of Love, it’s irony on the first layer, the simplest interpretation. On subsequent layers, third, fifth, and seventh, this book makes a serious bid (on behalf of its author) to be understood and perhaps even forgiven. The loneliness and isolation Becker feels is a sort of self-fulfilling spiral. In the story “Like Water, Till I Couldn’t Tell You from Me,” he doesn’t attend the funeral of his parents because everybody hates him in those situations, but the fact that he didn’t attend deeply bothers him. Though in many ways he’s interpersonally numb and blindfolded, he can sense a misstep and he does rebuke himself. In this story he’s on the beach, alone of course, thinking all of that over, remembering his parents, trying to rig up a rationalization, a way to forgive himself: when suddenly God deus ex machinas a perfect solution out of nowhere. A young lad nine years old trots by, shows himself, then darts into the surf and disappears. He’s drowning! And Peter runs down, tosses his bag aside, jumps in the water and pulls the boy out, then pumps on the lad’s chest until he breathes once more. Peter is a hero. He has saved a random life. On the spot redemption. Thank you, Lord!
I advise students against the “one person story,” the story that has only one primary character. It’s not only the danger of entering a solipsistic “repeat” loop. It’s that tension and dramatic arc, under normal circumstances, require two people minimally so that there’s friction, heat, tension, and rising action. In Houseboating in the Ozarks, Forrester’s first book of fiction, a novel, a man takes his two children, twins, a boy and a girl, to the Ozarks for a vacation; he and his wife are estranged, and his intent is to connect with the kids and, perhaps by so doing, console them and himself. One of the many wonders of that book is that the man’s two kids become real people capable of influencing the outcome of the trip. They grab him by the heart and throw him around. They are bright, funny, and embody their own kind of irony that meshes with Dad’s. It was a wonderful, smart, sad book.
So is this one, only this time, unlike Chris Hooker in Houseboating…, Becker has no one, and so the stories depend upon Becker’s own narration, memoir-like if it weren’t so cagily in third person. The stories are smartly written in Forrester’s straight-forward clear sentences which have always had the echo of Vonnegut to me. The stories follow a pattern (except for the last one, an attempted capstone which is funny but probably doesn’t fit in the set): The pattern is, Becker passes through some torment of human interaction which barely makes sense to him, then retreats to the quiet of home, watches a bit of TV, and goes to sleep alone.
One thinks of the great Olive Kitteridge, and this one might have been called Peter Becker except Gary Forrester wrote it, creating a unique point of view that is so broad it is at once a Gordian knot of irony, a psychological landscape, and a state of mind.
Philip F. Deaver is a writer from Illinois, currently living and writing in Florida. He's permanent writer in residence and Professor of English at Rollins College and teaches fiction and poetry in the brief residency MFA program at Spalding University in Louisville, KY. In 1986, he became the 13th winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, resulting in the publication of his collection Silent Retreats, re-released in paperback by the University of Georgia Press in the spring of 2008. He is the author of a collection of poetry, How Men Pray, Anhinga Press, 2005. He co-edited an anthology of writing from central Florida entitled Orlando Group and Friends (Arbiter, 1998) and was the editor of an anthology of creative nonfiction essays on baseball, Scoring From Second: Writers on Baseball.