A Not-So-Great Goodbye
Zyzzyva Editor Howard Junker will be retiring soon*. With the journal's latest issue, it's sad to say Junker will not be going out with a bang. More like a sparkle and a quick sputtering fade. Much of the writing in this issue is okay, not great. Fortunately there are some pieces that do shine, enough so to cast a glimmer over the rest.
In the latter category, we find "The Perfect Gifts for Mothers" by Maggie Shen King. In this wrenching story, a mother struggles to find a mail-order bride for her brain- damaged 37-year-old son. But her son doesn't want to get married. He cares more about video games than he does about women. To complicate matters, he knows enough to know he should be living on his own like other adults, but does not know enough about taking care of himself. A devastating scene involves the mother waiting at her son's apartment as he approaches the building, seeing how much weight he's gained now that he lives on his own and eats only potato chips. This is a brave, touching story that exposes a mother's greatest fears--an inability to protect her child from the world, and an inability to protect herself from her child.
"The Golem of Orla Shalom" by David Naimon also shines bright in this issue. Here, young Nathan is terrified over being required to present a portion of the Torah at his bar mitzvah. He is completely unprepared because he has not been paying attention in Hebrew school. What has he been doing instead? He's been doodling pictures of Penis Vampires and cracking jokes with his Orthodox friend, Murray.
At the outset of the story, Naimon lays it on a little thick. There's a mom pinching Nathan's cheek, a rant against someone who's "a complte klutz," a self-doubting Jew who feels he's not "the real megillah." One gets the feeling that Naimon is working overtime here to earn creds as a Jew who sounds, as he puts it, "Jewishy." But soon enough, Nathan's charm takes over. Not to mention the unusual facts about Jewish culture that really made this story memorable. Think blood. Circumcision. A rabbi's mouth. One exceptional thing about Zyzzyva is that they actively seek new writers. And their table of contents tells you precisely which writers are appearing for the first time in print. In addition, they put those writers in the front half of the journal, a special showcase for emerging talent.
Of the well-emerged authors, Sherman Alexie appears with a short piece. A deceptively complex story, "Pomegranate Psalm" consists of two people talking about writing, poetry and fruit. But wait. Zyzzyva's contents lists this as a poem. It must be one of those new hybrid things. No matter, if you can imagine two brilliant writers talking to each other after smoking a ton of pot, then you can imagine this delightful piece.
Other strong stories include Tom Lutz's "The Job Interview" and Alia Volz's "The Inn and Out." The former is an experimental story in the style of the OuLiPo, "a French literary movement from the 1960s which ‘generates' literary production by use of arbitrary constraints." Sound daunting? Have no fear. Lutz's story is quite compelling, treating the ever-horrifying topic of the academic job interview with humor and insight. Volz's story is a straightforward account of Edith, an unhappy woman who manages a motel in a small town. The story is dark. Think adultery, suicides and drugs. The one bright spot is the end, where we see a glimmer of Edith's longing for human connection. Sadly, the body she connects with is a corpse.
The poetry in this issue runs the stylistic gambit. Aliza Rood--first time in print--appears with "Print Into the Bruise," a lovely, fluid poem that raises questions about impermanence and connection. "All any of us are in the end/ is a thumb pressing/ one unremarkable print/ into the bruise of the beach..." A humbling thought for any aspiring writer.
Jeanine Webb's "Embarcadero" paints a picture of a young girl in a particular time and place. It begins, "that summer I believed in zines..." and goes on to list the details that make up a way of life. "got my car smashed/ 3x in one week/ lived on pasta and potatoes/ and couldn't always/ afford sliced bread/ it wasn't unique or/ interesting." If the hipster generation is looking for a poem to define itself, they might turn here. Webb artfully ties in references to romance, as well as David Byrne and Neutral Milk Hotel.