A long time ago the late, great Grace Paley, who graced (sorry) the Hudson Valley with her fierce, openhearted, brilliant presence, told me, “You’re a real writer.” Without a clue as to what she meant, I stored her comment in my shirt pocket for years, pulling it out, creased and faded, whenever I was truly stumped or tangled up in a net of prose. Recently I had a head-smack of a moment when I realized that what she meant was reflecting a real effort: a struggle, a wish, an ambition, and a clear love for language in all its elastic and rigid forms. So I now convey her words to the writers whose stories I had the privilege to read for this contest. The stories were written by real writers: they had art and intention and desire written all over them. The paradox of fiction is that if it doesn’t feel real, it doesn’t feel like fiction.
The winning story, “The Minivan,” by Mimi Lipson, was so real it made me laugh. On one level it is a very real-feeling portrait of a very real-seeming character who has a real kind of obsession with all the wrong, but real, things in life—such as a Ford Aerostar. Now there was a car, half clunker, half beauty, that had real written all over it (I had one, so I know). The details are real. The tools. The facial expressions. I can see it all. But on another level the story is about how the heart attaches and detaches; about how the heart itself has to be realistic. We go through this all the time, don’t we? And that is what I loved about it. Congrats. Really.
—Jana Martin, 2008 Fiction Contest judge
Jana Martin is the author of Russian Lover and Other Stories, a critically acclaimed collection published last year. She lives and works in Ulster County and is in the throes of a novel.
I met Isaac when he was doing some work at my house. I think he asked me out because he admired my fiberglass spaghetti lamp. He was foxy, punk rock, bratty in his banana curls and calculator watch. Mostly, he was hilarious! On our first date, at a bar in South Philly, he told me all about his plan to poison the crackheads in his neighborhood by scattering cyanide-filled vials on the sidewalk; about shooting pigeons by the bucketful in the warehouse he used to live in; he had me in stitches with his megalomaniacal fantasies about turning a certain abandoned factory into his fortress of solitude, where he would build his own personal Road Warrior Batmobile. Of course this was before I knew he wasn’t kidding about any of it. We hoisted mug after mug of lager that night, thrilled to have found one another. We groped behind a dumpster. We groped in a dumpster.
Isaac showed me his photo album a few weeks into our affair. I thought it was amazing. With the overconfidence of a new lover, I deemed it a distillation of his very essence. Here was baby Isaac, standing unsteadily in a hallway, gripping a bench for support. Here was Isaac as a slack-lipped high school metalhead, eyes stoned and affectless beneath a frizzy mullet. Here he was perched high up on a roof truss in the warehouse, aiming a BB gun at the camera. And here with his old dog, Death Ray, lost in an acrimonious break-up. There were random snapshots: a brutalist municipal building; an ornate Victorian window grate; a boat in a weed-choked lot photographed through a cyclone fence, christened “The A-HOLE.” There were pages and pages of photos of floors—red pine, tongue-and-groove oak, parquet—that he’d installed or refinished or repaired over the years. Occasionally these would show someone in a corner holding a shop vac or a bucket, but Isaac didn’t identify them as he leafed through the album with me.
He stopped at a picture of a skinny blonde girl in the passenger seat of a van. I thought he was going to tell me about an ex girlfriend (maybe the one who’d kept Death Ray), but instead he began waxing nostalgic about the van she was sitting in. It was an Aerostar, he said, with plush velour seats and AC and power everything, and it was the nicest car he’d ever had. This began a disquisition on the subject of minivans, which Isaac felt were the perfect work vehicles. They got better gas mileage than a truck, you could fit a 4 x 8 sheet of plywood in the back, and you could sit in a nice civilized captain’s chair up front with a cup-holder and everything. (He liked his creature comforts.) He told me he had drawn plans for a prototype of the modern minivan when he was 10 years old, and he therefore felt that in some small measure he had invented it.