Chris Stuck: Give My Love to the Savages (Amistad, 2021) [IBR2021]

The nine tales in Give My Love to the Savages illuminate the multifaceted Black experience, exploring the thorny intersections of race, masculinity, and Black life through an extraordinary cast of characters. From the absurd to the starkly realistic, these stories take aim at the ironies and contradictions of the American racial experience. Chris Stuck traverses the dividing lines, and attempts to create meaning from them in unique and unusual ways. Each story considers a marker of our current culture, from uprisings and sly and not-so-sly racism, to Black fetishization and conservatism, to the obstacles placed in front of Black masculinity and Black and interracial relationships by society and circumstance.
Setting these stories across America – in large and small cities – Stuck uses place to expose the absurdity of race and the odd ways that Black people and white people converge and retreat, rub against and bump into one another.

Jacket copy

Chris Stuck does a number of things I really like in this volume. He plays with names. He varies the tone from one story to the next, sometimes even within a story. And boy, does he ever stick the endings.

Although all of the stories focus on Black or biracial men, there’s a lot of diversity. In several of his interviews, Stuck mentions that he wants to balance out the books that show Black people poor or oppressed or in danger, show more successful Black people. There are indeed successful Black men in these stories, but there are also those who have lost, or are losing, that success, and those who haven’t quite gotten there yet. Ages range from teens to middle age; a few stories are second person; one reads like a memoir. Not all of these men seem like good guys at first, but they’re all struggling to figure it out, and that generates a great deal of empathy.

The opening story, “Every Time They Call You Nigger,” sets a contemplative tone, recounting this specific event that remains ingrained in the memories of so many Black people. But there’s humor, too, as both Black and white people try to figure out the rules for when it’s ok to use this reclaimed, rehabilitated term. But our protagonist “never had the right cadence” so he skipped it. It’s weird how angry some white people get when they find out they can’t do something a Black person can. Sometimes they ask questions about it. Usually they’re just being dicks.

Which brings us to the second story. It seems to track with several other stories in the collection, stories I’d call “looking in the mirror and not liking what I see.” In “How to Be A Dick in the 21st Century,”  Richard Dickerson knows he’s a dick. He’s always known he was a dick. It didn’t seem like a problem.

The testosterone, it was how I got ahead, my assertiveness, my swagger. As a man, it was expected of me. As a Black man, it was required. Every single morning of my adulthood, as I took a leak, I adjusted my medicine cabinet door so I could get a glimpse of my morning wood in the mirror.
Somehow, everything would then seem right, if not in the world then at least in my life.

Until he woke up one morning as a six-foot penis.

I’m still somewhat under the influence of George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, having just read it  a couple of months ago, so I couldn’t help but compare this story to Gogol’s “The Nose,” discussed in that book. It’s a very different story: Dickerson is a lot less upset at his predicament than Kovalyov was at his. Instead of running to a doctor, he figures out how to walk on two testicles and how to dress so as to cover the most shocking aspects of his new appearance. He knew, after all, that he was a dick in the first place.

But I also see a real similarity to Gogol: as Saunders puts it, “[T]he meaning of a story in which something impossible happens is not that the thing happened… but in the way the story reacts to the impossibility. That is how the story tells us what it believes.” What this story believes is that change is possible. It may take a massive shock to bring it on, but once you face your dickishness, you can do something about it, if you choose. And this is one of those beautifully stuck endings, as Richard has a brief exchange with a doorman who seems to feel as though he’s lost something, while Richard feels he’s gained.

Another facing-yourself story, though in a far more realistic vein, is “Cowboys.” A wax museum guard decides to make some extra cash by helping his co-worker’s brother track down a bail jumper. Things get a little rough, and he has a moment: “I couldn’t believe I was standing there with two white dudes I barely knew, over the body of a woman I just helped hunt down, a Black woman.” There are a lot of funny moments in this story, but that isn’t one of them. But again, change is possible.

Then there are those who don’t change, who get impossibly stuck, and it’s not entirely their fault. In “This Isn’t Music,” there’s disappointment and tragedy all around. Nick’s career that stalled out, and he had to return to his childhood home to take care of a father who doesn’t recognize his son (“My son doesn’t look like you….Well, for one thing, you’re Black”), who can’t tell the difference between an electric shaver and a cornet. A wife who’s happy there. And an old girlfriend. They only sleep together once, but Nick’s clearly having what the Twelve Steppers call an emotional affair. Names play such an important role in the story – the white wife’s name is Lily, the Black girlfriend’s married to “the only white guy in the world named Tyrone.” All of these things could be played for laughs, but the tone is too bleak to create humor.

The very geography of the road sums it all up:

You are 286 feet below the surface, in the bowels of a man-made crater, a big-ass hole. … It was all the entertainment you had. A bump. A bump to jump, you used to say. Bumps are hard to come by here, since it’s so flat. You both loved the launch, that moment of flight. It was better than drugs, better than sex. You’re an asshole, but there are still some things you can appreciate.

Yes, the self-recognition is there, but the weight of the air is just too much to allow for change.

“Chuck and Tina Go On Vacation,” on the other hand, is hilarious. They don’t so much want a vacation as they want to post vacation photos to impress the friends who’ve been posting their own vacation photos. It’s Keeping Up with the Joneses on Social Media. And though they pay for it in a couple of ways, they still don’t get it. Some people are too self-absorbed for change.

For showing how change can happen after self-recognition, the prize goes to “The Life and Loves of Melvin J. Plump, Esq.” Melvin is a Black conservative political operative who cut a few too many corners, and found himself in court-ordered therapy. His therapist urges him to take a cruise for unseen souls:  “People who are shunned by society because of their physcial appearance. It’s just like how it sounds. Unseen souls, Melvin.” And why should he take that particular cruise? He’s developed vitiligo; his formerly dark skin has turned pink-white.

Malavika Praseed of the Chicago Review of Books felt this story was off: “the catchiness of the premise trumps the events of the story itself.” I strongly disagree; the whole idea of a cruise of disfigured and/or disabled people felt disgusting to me, but by the end of the story, I’d forgotten all about the vitiligo, about the politics, about the therapist, about my disgust. It’s a longer story, so that allows for a lot of development as Melvin meets Zarrella, another unseen soul.

…[S]he was obviously bookish but then again obviously not. There was something else there, a variety of roughness I couldn’t place. Perhaps she was a reformed thug with a knack for words. Whatever it was, it made her interesting. She was tall, possibly well proportioned if you squinted a little. There was a certain dignity in the way she could disregard people, even me.

She’s fascinating, and their relationship goes through many twists and turns, culminating in a beautiful moment that works as metaphor and as plot, as it provides the impetus for Melvin to change. Maybe not a lot – he’s probably still a conservative – but enough to provide that empathy story readers look for.

“And Then We Were the Norrises” is another story that rode relationships beautifully, in this case a couple of relationships in the life of a teenager in Witness Protection due to some shenanigans by his parents. Stuck plays with names again; this time, unlike in “Music,” we can enjoy the humor as we find out the boy’s newly assigned name is Chuck Norris, and his newly found friend is Sterling Silver. Man, that’s child abuse, y’know? But the two boys developing feelings for each other, dancing around the edges of homoeroticism without actually going there; it’s a high-wire act. The other relationship is with the agent assigned to look out for the family, a crank who only becomes genuine when he faces a personal loss. It’s perhaps a tad unrealistic, but it was drawn so nicely, I just went with it. Reason as slave to the passions and all that.

The title story is last; I read it in this year’s Pushcart (and discussed it then), and that’s why I decided to read the collection. I was going to wait for the paperback, but I got impatient. I’m glad I did, because I would have missed what is one of the nicest dust jackets I’ve seen in a while. The art, by Arnold R. Butler, is cool enough, but it’s magnificently rendered: gold foil, and a slightly rough texture to the heavy paper, with the title in smeared white. Photos don’t do it justice.

One of the things that interests me about short story collections is how authors put them together. Stuck has said in several interviews that he wanted stories about biracial men to bookend the collection, a clever idea. He’d tucked the penis story in the middle, hoping readers would have a sense of his writing before they came to it, but his agent wanted it right up front. That makes a stark contrast with the contemplative first story, but seeing as it grows contemplative itself, it works. The cruise story, being longer, went next-to-last because he’d read that’s where authors put novellas in collections. I can’t find examples, but it works where it is, so I have no complaints.

In fact, I have no complaints at all about this book. I enjoyed it all around, and I’m glad I ran across the story that led me here.

* * *

An Interview with Author Chris Stuck by Tom Williams – mixedmag.com : “But I want to see more successful black folks in books. For whatever reason, the publishing industry has a predilection for black trauma stories, black folks being held down by a system of oppression. It seems like those are the only stories that get out there. We’re not all from the ghetto or the inner city or the poor south or gang-infested west. Those realities exist, of course, but I just want to balance the representation, complicate it.”

Malavika Praseed for Chicago Review of Books : “To me this collection helps debunk the idea that men are not privy to their own flaws and insecurities. Rather, when these are claimed and understood, art can result.”

Chris Stuck, in conversation with Chris L. Terry at BookSoup: “I don’t plot before writing; I freewrite and discover as I go. Most of the time I have an idea and try to figure a way into it, like the first sentence. Then I just explore the voice or whatever is happening in the story. At some point I realize I need the narrative drive, or something to riff on in the story… The plot comes out of trying to figure out what I’m doing.”

Ten Best Book Covers of July 2021 – LitHub

Arnold R. Butler, Artist

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