The discourse about reading fiction during the pandemic has followed two broad tracks: There are those who take comfort in the activity, and those who have found reading impossibly difficult. I belong to the latter camp, but I’m all the more excited to share the following books, which, while very different in genre and mode, shook me out of listless distraction with their originality.
DANCE ON SATURDAY (Small Beer Press, 318 pp., paper, $17) is Elwin Cotman’s third collection of short fiction. We tend to call fiction “short” when it’s not a novel, but the six stories in “Dance on Saturday” are long, deep and rich, each so thoroughly engrossing and distinctive in its style that I had to take long breaks between them. The stories I enjoyed least (“Among the Zoologists,” “The Son’s War”) tend to favor accumulation and excess in a way that made me feel like the butt of an obscure joke, while the ones I loved (all the rest) favor depth of feeling and character, foreground care more than swagger. Rooted in contemporary cityscapes and mythic pasts, with affects ranging from melancholy optimism to humor to horror, this collection is a sensuous, polyphonic feast.
The title piece — and the longest, accounting for about a third of the book — packs in a novel’s worth of complexity. In modern-day Pittsburgh live immortal beings called the Fruit, ancient creatures who can replace their aging body parts with everything from berries to cantaloupe so long as they’ve grown it themselves. Millenniums ago the Fruit took on the appearance of Black people; today there are 14 of them left, all part of the congregation of the Fruit of Jehovah Baptist Church, living among their human brethren but under the auspices of a mysterious Lord Decay. Focused on the relationship between Teetee, a kind Fruit elder, and Deja, a young mortal mother and cancer survivor, the story is a microcosm of intergenerational clashes and the tension between desire for lineage and resistance to it.
In “Seven Watsons” — far and away my favorite story — a young man called Flexo speaks compassionately of life in the scrutinized confinement of the Pittsburgh Job Corps, and of how the arrival of seven strange brothers transformed his life there. There came a point in the story, a hinge, where I suddenly felt the way I did the first time I heard jazz harp, or quarter tones from an Arabic maqam played on violin: hearing new music on old instruments and vice versa, experiencing transposition as transformation. I still get goose bumps recalling it.