By Ron Charles
Wednesday, September 22, 2010; C01
BEFORE YOU SUFFOCATE
YOUR OWN FOOL SELF
By Danielle Evans
Riverhead. 232 pp. $25.95
I hope Danielle Evans is a very nice person because that might be her only defense against other writers' seething envy. At 26, this D.C.-area author has already graduated from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, earned praise from Salman Rushdie and Richard Russo, and appeared in two (two!) volumes of "Best American Short Stories." Now comes the publication of her first collection, "Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self," eight quietly devastating stories that validate the hype. No, she's not the America's Next Top Model of the same name -- that would just be too much -- but she's captivating in a far more profound way.
Lorrie Moore, one of the country's finest short story writers, recently said that she considered the form inherently melancholy, and that's an apt appraisal of Evans's work, though her stories are flecked with humor, too. As an African American who grew up in Baileys Crossroads, she writes about black teenagers and college students -- sometimes older, occasionally male -- who live in a country still largely determined by race but tired of talking about it. The tensions of interracial dating are private now, and blacks work confidently as lawyers and professors, even as they search out black landlords who won't hassle them. The civil rights protests of their grandparents' era have settled into wry jokes and sarcastic realism.
That attitude energizes a rueful story called "Harvest" about a group of Columbia University students. These young black women see ads in the campus newspaper offering up to $15,000 for human eggs, but they know well-heeled couples don't want their genetic material, no matter how high their SATs or how healthy their bodies. "Columbia credentials be damned," says the narrator. "If they had wanted brown babies who so obviously didn't belong to them, they would have just adopted." Even as the story appears to glide along with no more direction than the flow of dorm-room gossip, it quickly develops into an unsettling reflection on the calculus of race, sex and commerce before arriving at a moment of compromise that's as intimate as it is disturbing.
That technique, the surprising dodge of moral responsibility that casts a character into deep regret and re-evaluation, works well in almost all these stories. The first one, "Virgins," is a deceptively casual tale of sexual initiation told by a 15-year-old girl in 1996. Evans, who teaches creative writing at American University, brings us right into the overconfident patter of these bored, anxious teens, kids who know sunscreen lotion is a white conspiracy, who know they deserve vastly more exciting lives, who know they can handle even the most dangerous situations. The narrator, Erica, resembles many of the people in this collection: She's smart but confused by the rules of teen life; eager to fit in, but conscious that she doesn't. Seeing a slutty girl at a bar, Erica says, "I wondered how you got to be a girl like that. Did you care too much what other people thought, or did you stop caring?" By the end of this powerful story, she gets a disturbing sense of just how far adrift she really is.
English teachers still assigning John Knowles's "A Separate Peace" -- why? why? -- could enrich their classroom discussion by comparing it to Evans's "Snakes." It's a rich, shocking story about a 9-year-old black girl sent to spend the summer with her wealthy white grandmother in Tallahassee. On the grounds of the estate, the young narrator cavorts with a much-favored cousin under the increasingly displeased eye of their toxic grandmother, who warns the girls of man-eating pythons in the lake. Like Ian McEwan's "Atonement," it's a story about longing and what vengeance a young girl can set in motion. You'll never experience its revelation the same way you did the first time, but it rewards in other ways on repeat readings.
Evans's greatest talent is her ability to create poignant moments of crisis in the lives of transient people who can't seem to connect with those they love. How quietly and easily the barriers between us are reinforced. In "Jellyfish," Eva waits eagerly for her father at a restaurant with the sense "that anyone could just by looking at her see that she did not belong to anyone, anywhere. . . . Where once she'd taken her self-sufficiency for granted, somewhere in a dizzying string of morning afters she had started to feel her aloneness was a mark of incompletion, faintly spreading." And yet, when her father arrives, so eager to help her, to embrace her, he feels that "her whole life was an elaborate series of barricades against him."
If there's some tonal and thematic redundancy in this collection, it's counterbalanced by such arresting stories as "Someone Ought to Tell Her There's Nowhere to Go." Set in the Washington area, the story involves an Iraq vet who comes home to discover -- as he expected -- that his girlfriend has moved in with a new guy. Determined to behave kindly and stay in her life any way he can, he volunteers to babysit her 5-year-old daughter. And what's the harm if this little one wants to call him "Daddy"? As a story of chronic alienation and post-traumatic stress, it's affecting and sweet, moving toward a tragicomic crisis that leaves this young vet staring into the conundrum of his intractable loneliness.
Again and again, without any histrionics, but with a clear appreciation for the natural drama of our mundane lives, Evans frames such questions in a way that will resonate with any thoughtful reader.
Charles is the fiction editor for The Post. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.