If Lydia Davis knew more people who hung out shirtless in small places and owned pitbulls instead of pedigreed cats, her stories might look at little like Julianna Spallholz’s. Lucky for us, we’ve already got Julianna Spallholz to write those stories. Her debut short story collection, The State of Kansas, is recently out from GenPop Books, and it’s a wonderful, lush read by a drily witty writer.
Spallholz writes the story of certain kinds of people in certain kinds of places. We know these people; of course we do. We all knew a Billy Glock, the kid with diabetes, who “when it was Billy Glock’s birthday, all the kids got regular Popsicles and Billy Glock got a special Popsicle that he had to eat sitting down with a fork and plate.” The kid who never particular stood out otherwise, who hung around his hometown and eventually because a cop or a firefighter or a paramedic or something else pivotal to our society yet oddly invisible to most of us. We all have friends like those in “Business Idea,” who:
sit at the kitchen table. They use fine point markers. They become excitable. They draft a budget for their business idea. They use imaginary money. Their business idea will not work.
We know the people Spallholz writes of in these stories. We are many of them. The one voice, the one persona we don’t quite get a handle on, is our narrator, or narrators. It’s not that they are unreliable, exactly; it’s just that she has made them into ciphers. They are a suburban secret, a window we can’t quite see into. They are what’s behind the lace curtains. They always seem a little separate, a little removed, which is of course exactly what allows those observations to be so sharp and painfully accurate. For instance, in “Tucson, Arizona”:
Some downtowners work at the little market, some work at the nicer restaurants, and some work at the bike shop. There are some banks and other offices. You could work at the University or at Raytheon, which is a place where they make weapons. A lot of people seem like they don’t have jobs, or like they have jobs that don’t take up too much time.
At the same time, Spallholz’s narrators occasionally expose their own isolation, in a blink-and-you-miss-it observati0n both funny and sad. This, buried in a bit about drink prices in Tucson:
Sometimes you end up getting drunk without meaning to. Entire days go by in bars. Entire weeks and months.
The people in the pages of The State of Kansas seem at times something more, or something less, than people. They aren’t quite parable, either – they’re something in between that feels new and fresh and full of secret understanding. The almost parable-ness, comes from Spallholz’s lovely use of language, of repetition, of sing-song-ness. The way she uses language gives a fable-like quality to the rather sharp and subtle observations she makes throughout these short pieces. Both “Your Maid in Real Life” and “The Body” make use of this extreme repetition, causing an almost total de-personhood of the maid, and separating the body from the being inside it.
And the fabled quality running through these stories allows Spallholz to do something else, as well, that is rather un-Lydia-Davis-like. She lets her characters, even her narrators, borrow hope. Her stories, then, become lush dreams in spite of themselves. Her stories become places where you find “the feeling of believing that every beautiful impossible thing could be real.” Even if it isn’t.