A few years ago, Julia Slavin developed a huge crush on her teenage lawn boy. When he arrived, tan and buff, to cut her grass in upper Northwest Washington, she would wriggle into a miniskirt, blast Jane's Addiction on the stereo and freshen her glossy pink lipstick. She counted the days between cuttings and chided her lawn for not growing fast enough. This unrequited experience of lust and longing morphed into the first story in her new, awkwardly titled collection, "The Woman Who Cut Off Her Leg at the Maidstone Club." Except, in the book, the woman swallows the lawn boy. Whole. For a few weeks they have a relationship of constant sex, a few romantic dinners, fights and making-up. And then one day she wakes up on a bloody slipcover and poof, he's gone.
Welcome to Slavin's skewed suburban world, where the seemingly impossible always has a kernel of the possible. One story, "Covered," explores the plight of a middle-aged man plagued by a childhood security blanket that refuses to stay in the attic, ruining a love affair and forcing its owner into a botched sea burial. "Blighted" tells the tale of a divorced woman who has an affair with her endangered oak tree and eventually gives birth to a crop of acorns. Without ever dipping wholly into science fiction or the surreal, Slavin brings these inanimate objects to life, generating sympathy for the needy blanket and admiration for the machismo bluster of the oak tree. "It's a lot to ask of someone to suspend their belief in that way," says Slavin of her quirky style. "I do challenge people with some of the subject matter but I do it in a non-threatening way."
Slavin's characters are humorously drawn, foible-filled regular people struggling with the age-old issues of love, death, jealousy and loneliness. Some of the objects of these emotions--an eight-pound lobster, the oak tree--just happen to be unusual or taboo. The lawn boy story, "Swallowed Whole," essentially delivers a tale of illicit lust by way of ingestion. "For me the best way to write about passion and its enormity is through that metaphor," says Slavin.
Despite the story's grotesque theme, the author has fun with her subjects. Light moments crop up on nearly every page, such as this scene at a French restaurant: "I felt his hands slide down the back of my ribs as he fell asleep. I ordered a plum tart so he would have a treat waiting for him when he woke up. I'd forgotten how much teenagers need to sleep." Yet when Slavin reads this before an audience, she says hardly anyone chuckles. "It's funny," says Slavin. "But it's not really funny."
The youngest child and only daughter among five children, Slavin, 40, describes herself as "a complete washout at school. I had one of those diseases with initials that when I was growing up just meant screwing up" that would now be called attention deficit disorder or something similar. Writing funny stories and plays captured her attention. She credits her father, a psychologist, with helping her "find a road to the unconscious that one needs to find when one is writing," and her mother, a Southerner, for showing her the "gift of idiom" through stories she created especially for her daughter starring a character called "Little Miss Nothing."
The stories in "Woman" feature many sexual scenes, some interspecies and one that verges on incest, so Slavin says she didn't sleep well the night she gave it to her parents to read. "After my mother read 'Swallowed Whole' she said, 'I guess I'm not going to send this to your Uncle Sonny,' " says Slavin with a shrug. "Many writers are paralyzed by the thought of their parents in the room, looking over their shoulder. You have to get through that or you'll get nowhere."
As for her children--both under the age of 10--eventually reading her tales, Slavin says she would probably feel more comfortable than they would. "Who knows," she says, thinking of "Swallowed Whole." "Maybe times will change and this will be considered tame."
Slavin, who with her long, dark-blond hair and black tank top looks more a California beach girl than an upper-Northwest mother, planned to be a playwright when she moved to New York after graduating from college with an art history degree. "In three days I saw what it was like to be poor," she says. "I didn't write a word for 10 years." She got a job at ABC, eventually working her way up to producing "PrimeTime Live" with Sam Donaldson. In the conservative network environment, she found ways to air her offbeat sense of humor, such as producing a segment that strung together election outtakes set to the music of Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer."
By 1992 Slavin felt burned out by the long hours of New York television production. She was eager to try her hand at writing again. She persuaded her husband, a lawyer, to relocate to Washington's Chevy Chase neighborhood, near Slavin's childhood home in Bethesda. The move was supposed to be temporary, but here they still live, assimilated suburbanites who drive a Land Rover. Here she leads a double life, retreating to her study to write in the mornings, a process she describes as lonely and tedious. She is working on a novel, whose plot she declined to reveal. In the afternoons, she plays the role of mother, ferrying her children to the local park or playground.
Not long after the move to Washington, her first story was published in a respected local literary magazine, the Crescent Review. "Rare Is a Cold Red Center" aches with loneliness and longing, themes that thread through most of Slavin's works. The narrator, Corky, voluntarily lives in a halfway house, works at a downscale chain restaurant and fantasizes about a slightly cross-eyed girl who eats there twice a week:
"Thursday she comes in. I feel clumsy and crazy, looking at her hair, watching her laugh at something her friend said, imagining she's laughing at something that I said," Slavin writes. The day his luck seems to turn--he gets a promotion and discovers the girl's name--Corky can't handle the possibility of success. He busts out of town, leaving behind his job and any possibilities with the girl.
"He's a very nice guy who means well but who has all of the failings that we all have," says Slavin, who thinks Corky is the character most like her. "We're all flawed. There's only so much you can do about that but try to do better."
A New York Times review of "Woman" described Slavin as an author "alive to the beauty of imperfections." Indeed, she seems to sketch people who through human error and insecurity sabotage their own shot at happiness. But as told in Slavin's sensitive, natural prose, their choices make them human, not simply pathetic or contemptible people. "I don't despise those characters at all," says Slavin, referring to two narcissists having an affair (while one grossly disintegrates, body part by body part) in her story "He Came Apart." "It would be impossible to spend that much time with them."
Readers and critics apparently do not despise her characters either. Henry Holt, the book's publisher, has sent "Woman" back to press for the second time. At a Politics and Prose July reading, 150 people showed up, eager to see the person who invented the book's characters. "Woman" is still on the store's in-house top 10 bestseller list. After the collection went to press Slavin won GQ magazine's Frederick Exley Fiction Competition for "Rare Is a Cold Red Center." The story ran in the May issue. Another story snagged a Pushcart Prize. The Washington Post review said, "Julia Slavin is a major discovery. Her writing gets into your bloodstream like a fever."
Like many writers, Slavin's stories, even the most bizarre, usually germinate with something she observed or experienced, although she says she's too disorganized to keep a journal of any kind. "People say everything you write is autobiographical," says Slavin. "It's probably true, but it's what you do with it."
At first glance, it would not seem that "Dentaphilia," a story in which a young woman named Helen sprouts teeth all over her body, could have any direct connection to its author. But the inspiration for the story was a serious illness, during which Slavin recognized that "this is worse for everyone around me than it is for me." Still, times of trouble prove how much we are loved, as the story illustrates. When Helen asks her husband, Mike, just how ugly she is, his response is stoic: "I moved her hair away and looked at her face, which was blotched and speckled with incisors. 'You could never be ugly, Hel,' I said. And I meant it." Mike and Helen work through the stress of her bizarre teething together. When Helen finally turns into a heap of calcified dust, it's obvious they love each other very much. This is as close to a happy ending as Slavin comes.
Although she spent a decade on Manhattan's Upper West Side, not one of Slavin's off-center stories takes place there. She doesn't know exactly why. Perhaps they wouldn't seem as unusual in a place as out-there as New York can be. Instead, leafy, quiet suburbia calls to her characters. "It's a place I'm very familiar with," she says. It's a place where the grass always grows and teenage boys usually mow it. It's a place of the possible.
CAPTION: Washington writer Julia Slavin: "I do challenge people with some of the subject matter but I do it in a non-threatening way."