BASS 2015: Laura Lee Smith, “Unsafe at Any Speed” from New England Review, #35.1

Cartoon by Doug MacGregor

Cartoon by Doug MacGregor

The day after his forty-eighth birthday was the same day Theo Bitner’s seventy-five-year-old mother friended him on Facebook. It was also the same day his wife told him he needed to see a doctor. Or a therapist. “It’s your mood,” she said. “It sucks.” Counting his mother, Theo now had eight Facebook friends. Sherrill, his wife, had 609. …
The estrogen levels at the house, a smallish Tuscan number in an uninspired neighborhood south of St. Augustine, were through the roof, in Theo’s opinion. With his daughter Ashley, unemployed and fresh from FSU with a degree in Women’s Studies (what the hell?), ensconced back in her childhood bedroom, with his mother Bette now living in the spare room he’d once fancied his office (the “bonus room,” Sherrill called it), and with Sherrill herself generally holding court over the rest of the house, Theo had begun to feel increasingly scuttled, shunted, reduced. There was a conspiracy, he reckoned. He didn’t like it.

Seems to me there’s some kind of agreement among males of the species, perhaps a Rule in a mental imprint laid down as neurons develop connections in the womb: “If there’s something wrong with your life, blame a woman.” Granted, the same thing can be said of women, who sing the “my man done me wrong” song way too many times. For that matter, we’re all looking to blame someone else, anyone else, as long as we never feel like our failures belong to us. So let’s all grow up: you picked ’em, you either live with ’em, or you get out, but in any case, take responsibility for your own damn failures.

But Theo isn’t quite there yet. He doesn’t want out, he just wants a little vacation. And that’s what this “story” is about. Yes, the quotation marks are snide commentary: to me, this is more a string of clichés than a story: a mid-life crisis, a lost phone cutting ties, threatening thunderclouds, a love-bug smashed on the windshield. I grew up in Florida; love bugs are a real thing, and they do make a horrible mess. And, by the way, they stay, ahem, connected, long past doing the deed, and often fly through the air as a matched set, which is why they’re called love bugs. What’s unusual here is that there’s only one on his windshield; typically they arrive in swarms, covering the windshield, headlights, hood, grill, you name it. I suppose that’s meaningful. It’s a special love bug.

Then we have the title: yes, marriage is unsafe at any speed. So is life, for that matter. Running away from home after your fantasy, definitely.

The only surprise is that his dream car isn’t red, but white.

As I’ve been commenting through this volume, my reading partner Jake (Hi, Jake!) has noticed I don’t often call out stories, or indicate I don’t “like” them. Part of that is just that I’m not really looking for “like” but to understand what the writer is doing, and part is that I’ve felt bad in the past when I’ve dissed a story. But we’re almost to the end of the anthology now, so it’s high time for a rant. I’m sure I’ll feel terrible about this in a few days (I’m sorry in advance, Ms. Smith) and I’ll feel stupid once I find out there’s a brilliant use of symbolism or reversed metaphors or some such thing. So be it.

The story is so clichéd, I’m going to quote a spoiler paragraph, so be forewarned. However, the spoiler doesn’t spoil anything. It’s exactly what you’d predict might happen from the estrogen crack on.

Theo felt a coolness runs through his veins, and he processed the implications of the current situation. So far today, he’d initiated (though admittedly not yet executed) an unapproved expenditure of $5000 from the joint checking account he shared with Sherrill; he’d very likely lost his biggest commission of the month, if not his entire job, by blowing off the sales call with Kelso; and he’d committed tawdry and outrageously athletic adultery with a woman half his age. And now, it seemed, he also aided and abetted a confessed embezzler. He watched the road. He felt in his pocket again for his phone. He gripped the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white.

I’ve see some internet comments about what a fun read this is. I’m all about fun, honest I am, but I guess I’m just not on that wavelength. And there’s this: New England Review is a serious literary journal with an impossible acceptance rate, and ranks 21st on Cliff Garstang’s Pushcart list. It’s not given to publishing fluff. So someone tell me what I’m missing.

6 responses to “BASS 2015: Laura Lee Smith, “Unsafe at Any Speed” from New England Review, #35.1

  1. Hi Karen, I don’t think you’re missing anything except a good reason to care. It’s the job of the writer to make the reader care, even about impossible or foolish or silly or predictable people. It is a little funny, I think, when the POV details (in the passage your quoted) his list of failings in one day, each of which is pretty monumental taken alone.. And the need to escape the prisons we allow to be built around us is familiar, especially mid-life. I remember, in my mid-30s, wanting desperately in some part of my head, just to flee the nightly “frenetic” (if I may use that as a noun here?) of making dinner for squabbling kids, occasional fire alarms from the oven (which needed to be cleaned), and phone calls from editors who liked to call then because they knew unlike others they had to deal with that I’d be home. It was funny too, because the last thing I wanted, in truth, was to be away from my family. Still, this guy does more than fantasize: he risks (and probably succeeds in) hurting others. That’s where the line gets drawn. Is it worth it? Who is he really? We need more to make a sympathetic connection here unless, of course, you are absolutely right at the start and some of this is driven by a universal need to blame, and maybe a very convenient habit of blaming the other gender. Thanks for your comment and having such a user-friendly response mechanism. — SF

    • Hi Susan – I was a little nervous about posting such negative comments, but I just got fed up. If this were a Steve Martin movie, I’d probably love it, but the character in the story is so devoid of personality beyond his whining, it’s exactly as you’ve summed it up – there’s no reason to care, either to laugh at him or to sympathize or whatever.

      As for the user-friendly response system, I can’t take much credit for it – that’s WordPress’s department. I’m glad it works for you!

  2. Thanks for the shout-out. This reminds me a lot of our discussion of “Happy Ending.” When we read that story, you originally saw it as kind of a tepid, been-there-before story of an awakening in an old guy to the sensual (I think). I thought that at first, but later felt like I found enough clues in that story to make it seem that it was all an awakening only in his head. In reality, he had changed, but for the worse.

    This story really bugged me while reading it. It has a host of cliches. I mean a lot of them. Middle-aged guy with the emasculating wife, gets a sports car, has a fling with an age-inappropriate woman, chucks the job that is choking the life out of him. There were so many cliches, I really felt it had to be ironic. Nobody who writes with that much control could be guilty of also being so obtuse to a story being played out. But the irony was hard to find. There’s a car chase.

    This is a familiar story, but what is the attitude toward the man in crisis in this case? Is it sympathetic, like in the movie American Beauty? Is it satirical, like “Happy Ending”? I’m thinking it leans toward satirical. That is, we’re not supposed to think this is really an empowering breakdown in the status quo. He’s going home, after all. There’s going to be hell to pay. But I don’t think it’s totally ironic. He might be a whipped, cuckolded sadsack, and he might not have much choice at the end of the day but to go home and take his medicine. But he’s going to take his time getting there and listen to his music for once. Maybe that’s really all a lot of people can get. It’s possibly more realistic than American Beauty, but less pessimistic than “Happy Ending.” He doesn’t get to extort a year’s salary on the way out the door, but his acceptance of his own carnality isn’t totally condemned, either.

    • It occurs to me, there is one thing I liked about the story. The phone falling in the toilet, specifically the urine-filled toiled, reminded me of a tawdrification (of there can be such a thing) of the Andres Serrano art piece “Piss Christ” with the phone filling in as the symbol of the marriage, treated with utter disrespect.That seems to go nicely with that meaningful love bug squashed on the windshield.

  3. It’s a wonderful short story. Full of humorous detail, a wild ride. Enjoy and stop trying to politicize it, please. This is literature, not politics. Story made best American short stories of 2015 by the way.

    • Can you explain how she’s “politicizing” the story? I didn’t get that from her post at all.

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