Dislocated, disaffected people. They’ve always walked among us, but modern life has increased their number. We monitor their suffering—the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill, the sexually abused—with an unfounded superiority. We regard them with condescension, a coping mechanism to maintain a reassuring chasm between us and them. If we hear their stories, it is probably on afternoon TV, as they square off in front of a judge and emit tales like strangled screams.
However, Rhinebeck-based author Mary Gaitskill apprehends in these characters an eloquence most of us never hear. Once a prostitute, a runaway, and a stripper, Gaitskill (both a cult favorite and National Book Award short-lister) knows how people can stumble upon self-destructive paths, and doesn’t summon psychological terms to illuminate, explain, or condemn them. Don’t Cry, the author’s first collection of short stories in a decade, introduces a legion of bruised souls, each trying to understand his place in an unforgiving world.
We have passed through these airless, punishing lives before, guided by Raymond Carver, A. M. Homes, Hubert Selby, David Wojnarowicz, and even JT Leroy. (Gaitskill was a mentor to the fabulist; make of that what you will.) In the 10 tales splayed out here, the rawness of the world is as stimulating as despair-inducing. We know that people talk at, rarely with, one another. But Gaitskill catches these voices passing in the ether, as they conduct quizzical communions with themselves, during cigarette breaks at the clinic, at a literary conference, on a train heading north along the Hudson, among soiled bedclothes, and along a rutted mountain trail up in the Shawangunks. If their ceaseless self-examination yields no answers, Gaitskill suggests, that’s fine, for certainties can be just as hollow and self-deluding.
Collected from a variety of publications where they first appeared, the stories in Don’t Cry differ erratically in style and tone. A cruel bluntness marks “College Town, 1980,” while emotional and sexual obsession leaven “A Dream of Men.” For those who laud Gaitskill as a feminist, she plays a cagey game with the concept in “The Agonized Face.” Mistaken as a merciless writer, Gaitskill simply knows that love is more commonly lost than found. In “Mirror Ball” she recounts the metaphysical reasons for a failed romance, bringing breathtaking insight—and sadness—to a familiar scenario.
There are curious missteps and indulgences in this book. “Folk Song” is a mash-up of newspaper stories, straining to find the slender filament that joins the accounts. The title story is a small epic, detailing a journey by two friends to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to adopt a child as war erupts. The women’s struggles keep one transfixed, but a mawkish subplot concerning a dying husband stands at odds with Gaitskill’s dry-eyed style. Don’t Cry will delight fans, but a more judicious editing would have charmed, rather than wearied, the newcomer.
Gaitskill relishes irresolvable moral contradictions and finds a touchstone in the Iraqi invasion. Two stories—”The Little Boy” and “The Arms and Legs of the Lake”—acknowledge the war’s moral dilemmas. The latter piece is as much opera as short story: Several passengers on a train react to two returning soldiers, the men serving as Rorschach tests for their own guilt or anger.
For all her lacerating candor, Mary Gaitskill evokes compassion for the sorriest of souls. Don’t Cry offers much to marvel at.