Triquarterly Books/Northwestern University Press ($17.95)
by James Naiden
Anthony Varallo’s third collection of stories brings together disparate elements of his characters’ lives, the uneven hinges that make up the human condition. Think of Me and I’ll Know often displays superior writing even if the page-by-page execution of the story itself is not always consistent; to portray absurdity and pathos takes a command of irony, and Varallo manages this with aplomb.
In “Time Apart Together” we meet Brad, a college dropout and the only progeny of a disharmonious marriage in which his father has taken to chopping down trees and playing decades-old LPs. Of course he has a girlfriend of sorts, named Ursula, who keeps talking about Kevin, apparently a former boyfriend, and comparing the two. But as a telephone solicitor for a bank, Brad seems to know how to liven up his temporary calling in life:
During breaks, I sat in a too-brightly lit cafeteria and made fun of the people I’d just spoken to. I made fun of the woman who shouted, “Diane Sawyer told us about you!” and the man who made me sing “Hail to the Redskins” on speakerphone, or the umpteen million callers whom I’d put on hold while I pretended to take their names off the phone solicitation list. I made fun of the phone solicitation list. I made fun of Phil, a coworker who wore his headset during break, and who read the sales script with the grim intonation of a hostage testimonial, and who often sat across from me at break, making fun of me making fun of him.
The divagations in the story are at first predictable: Brad doesn’t return to college and breaks up several times with Ursula, tired of her refrains about Kevin. But then suddenly Kevin appears, an exact doppelganger of Brad:
Kevin looked up at me, his face mine, his expression mine, the look I sometimes turned on Ursula when she told me she loved me, me wanting her gone. There was something Kevin’s look wanted to reveal to me, but it wasn’t until Kevin reached out and pulled my shirt from its buttons and placed the first of his many punches against my temple that I understood what it was.
“Kevin!” Ursula was screaming. “Kevin, don’t!”
And I felt Kevin’s blows against my head and tasted blood on my teeth and finally grasped, at long last, the impossible possibility of love.
That’s where the story ends. Varallo leaves his meaning ambiguous—not unlike many of his characters and their mundane situations.
In “No One At All,” eleven-year-old Jonas has a friend, Toby—two years older, self-centered, unreliable, and totally indifferent to the feelings of others. They are on vacation with the younger boy’s parents in Atlantic City’s Boardwalk area. At one point, Jonas buys a live crab and names it “Horace.” Toby wants to kill it, even torture it but he doesn’t get his wish: on the car ride home, the crab dies in its little box. Jonas is upset, but Toby, narcissistic as ever, has no interest in the younger boy’s grief, as a plane flies low overhead near an airport. Here are the concluding lines:
Toby stuck his head out the window, the wind taking his hair. “It’s like it’s going to land on us,” Toby said. A shadow lengthened across the car. A roar descended, like a sustained thunderclap. Jonas looked at Toby and saw the shadow swallow him whole.
“We’re dead,” Toby said. “Dead, for real dead.”
Varallo’s terse realism bleakly suggests the worst in human nature and fate, and this direness distinguishes the collection. In Think of Me and I’ll Know, one is entranced by the story itself, despite the lack of upbeat endings.