Damn Sure Right is a collection of 88 (by my count) flash fiction pieces in about twice that number of pages. In general, flash fiction is to fiction kind of like what haiku are to poetry: hard to isolate one from all the others and appreciate it on its own. You need to take the collection as a whole since some flash fictions are more successful than others. This is not to say that Meg Pokrass’ collection is “uneven,” but some of the stories are better than the others, and when they’re good, her stories are really good, terrifically comical at the same time that they are poignantly tragic, all in the space of a page or two.
The whole book is compelling; Pokrass keeps you wanting to read more, even when some stories are less satisfying than others, not as cohesive. This is the challenge any collection faces, of course, poetry, short stories, essays, but with flash fictions, each is like a bump in the road, you haven’t invested too much time or commitment to any single one; you can put the book aside at any point and pick it back up again when you want.
Flash fiction partakes of all the classic story elements – a protagonist/narrator, conflict, and usually a sense of resolution, an image of completion, or explanation. Because the form is so compact, lots is left up to the reader to infer, and this can be the truly powerful thing about flash fiction, the way it engages the reader’s imagination, to fill in the blanks, connect the dots.
Take Pokrass’ story, “Thirty-nine.” Told by a nameless female narrator, it’s about a woman breaking up with her hunk boyfriend, a medical student but kind of slacker, you realize as you’re reading the story. She’s been an aspiring actress up until now but at thirty-nine she wants more stability, feels her age creeping up on her (“I’m squinting – accentuating my crow’s feet.”). She’s taking real estate classes but hasn’t told her boyfriend, who likes the idea of her being an actress, as if it’s that glamour that appeals to him. It’s this idea he has of her and her own self-assessment that clash and result in her leaving him. None of this is explained, but it’s what we come to realize in the space of a few hundred words. The story concludes: “The wind, as usual, gusts strongly when walking directly north. I have to push against it to move forward.” What a metaphor.
A common theme in these stories is people using other people, sometimes violently. John Updike once wrote of Ray Carver that his stories depict lives “beneath the threshold of any aspiration higher than day-to-day survival.” This sometimes feels true about Pokrass’s stories. The characters are generally young, unsettled, looking to get some sort of advantage, often by exploiting others somehow. Or, as Pokrass writes in the story called “So I Drew Him a Poodle”:
I faced the door and decided to walk before anything worse happened, before I could tell him or he could tell me that everything was really fucked, had always been and would always be so…
Or again, in the story called “Crocodilian”:
I learned that my mother’s luck was a wan cup of Pepsi that has been out all night for a sick child, flat and then discarded. On our stoop, luck cleared its throat like a Mormon missionary and walked away.
In “Her Bottom,” told by the less talented, less attractive friend of an aspiring actress (with an enormous ass), we realize by the end of the story what a soul-sucking person Haley, the talented actress is. Having milked her friend for comfort over a disappointing boyfriend, she winds up in a show on the Disney channel and it’s with a shock that the narrator realizes, hearing her own words of consolation parroted back, “She is using my inflection, my voice.” (She’s also lost her big ass, which leaves her with “no character.”) Other violations aren’t as subtle. Rape, physical and emotional abuse, theft, shabby treatment.
In the title story (one of the truly great ones in this collection) a woman is raped in some unspeakably violent way that we’re left to imagine from the way she’s approached by her attacker and her slurred speech, broken jaw afterward. But the collateral damage to her relationship with her ineffectual boyfriend may be even more moving. Years later when her husband takes her from behind she recalls the rape – as the reader does, by this very act of intimacy – and she can still vividly summon “his flannel shirt and the smell of his fear and the things he did that he thought would help.”
But for all the bleakness we encounter in these stories, Pokrass is exuberantly funny, fun to read. Her sentences are gorgeous. In “Extinction” she writes, “The Big One, the nine-pointer on the San Andreas fault is looming like an angry landlord.” In “The Mask of Politeness” she observes, “The rest of them turn toward me as if I am a piece of sharp bone that made its way into the dinner soup.” In “Terribly Light and Small,” commenting on the décor of a health food store: “The word ‘antioxidant’ is displayed everywhere you look in here, like mouse ears at the Disneyland Hotel.” “Blood Sugar”: “Life feels like being stuck in a bus, next to a skinny bitch – the kind that keeps blinking.” “Foreign Accent Syndrome”: “Her fancy-sounding accent whizzed overhead like a dragonfly – harmless, colorful.” The story “Zelda” begins, “My sex drive walked back in the door with a broken suitcase.” You can’t help but chuckle, even as you recognize the drab, depressing reality that underlies the words.
A cover blurb by Frederick Barthelme (with whom Pokrass works as an editor for the online literary magazine Blip - formerly Mississippi Review) says Pokrass “writes like a brain looking for a body.” This may be another way of saying the stories are looking for a plot. At their least successful, some of these stories just don’t hang together, and concluding sentences that should be a revelation or a summing-up just aren’t. Even allowing for the possibility that the fault is with me, the reader, at times I “just don’t get it” after reading and re-reading some of the stories, usually those less than a page, like “Everything Surprises Me” and “The Magician” (but even here there’s a marvelous image: “…cabs call like geese, or the mothers of missing children.”). Still, even after reading these more inscrutable flashes several times, you suspect that there may actually be a body there that goes with the brain.