I am not sure where the dividing line is for middle class is anymore. I probably never knew where it was for black middle class. Mt. Vernon New York is a working class suburb of New York City. While diverse, it divides north and south, with the former being predominantly white and the south, which borders the Bronx, being mostly black.
“Virgins” takes place in Mt. Vernon. The characters are African-American teenage girls, but the tension is one that all teenage girls face. Should they or shouldn’t they. Who has lost it, who is pretending. These girls have protection. A male friend who is truly just a friend. A school principal who allows them hangout by his private pool. Unfortunately they are intentionally and accidentally drawn toward the vaginal badge of presumed adulthood. There is nothing wrong with the story, but I was leery that the rest of the collection would be more of the same. I was wrong. Danielle Evans’ voice is more distinctive. It is African-American and universal, with a middle class bent.
“Snakes” reminded me of the Maurice Sendak quote. “I remember my own childhood vividly… I knew terrible things. But I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.” He had a miserable childhood. Children are often physically and emotionally abandoned by their parents. Their calls for help go unanswered. The monsters that haunt them are not what their parents think.
Danielle Evans graduated from Columbia University. She drew her stories from personal and family experiences. “Harvest” is about eggs and racial and economic class at an elite college. Some sell their eggs, some take it to term. Those from the “wrong” side, often sacrifice themselves for those who are more sheltered, or who may be moving out. This is the theme of “Robert E. Lee is Dead”. Being smart does not get you accepted, but a valedictorian grows with the help of a street smart girl.
Relationships are plowed in “Someone Ought to Tell Her There is Nowhere to Go”,”The King of a Vast Empire”, “Jellyfish” and “Wherever You Go, There You Are”. The first is a “Dear, John” story, only the vet knows his girl has left him before he ships out, and still cannot accept it upon his return. He is a better person than his ex, but she was honest. Her boyfriend, a friend of the vet, manages a KFC and helps support the ex’s daughter by her former husband. They are all trying to do the right thing, but the right result is a matter of perspective. Upon returning home from Iraq, you feel for the vet, when the KFC manager greets him: ” ‘Not bad,’ he said. ‘I’ve been holding it down over here while you been holding it down over there. Glad you came back in one piece.”
Accidents cause scarring, you just don’t know who is injured. “The King of a Vast Empire” explores the impact of a car accident on a family. Those who survive, are not necessarily alive. Identity theft becomes a force for healing.
“Jellyfish” is about parental love. A father loves his daughter and continues to try to comfort and protect her through adulthood. Love is not recognized in “Wherever You Go, There You Are.” A former and intermittent lover reluctantly travels with her niece to the wedding of that boyfriend. Puberty has taken hold of the precocious and difficult young cousin who postures, but has no understanding of sex. “She’s dropped the diet stuff, at least, but if you’ve ever seen anything more disturbing than a kid eating a Reese’s Pieces Happy Face Sundae after you’ve explained to her how to give a proper blow job, I don’t want to hear about it.”
I liked “Snakes” the best. There is a twist to it. While reading some of the other stories I had the feeling I get on the subways. Those who least can afford it give. Ms. Evans is the recipient of a number of prizes for short stories, and this collection is worth a read.