Tell Him You're Married|
by Stan Rogal
by Steven Manners
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|Stories Exploring Beginnings and Endings
by Alex Boyd
Writers, like anyone else, can't be blamed for having a strong interest in how relationships begin and end. Tell Him You're Married from Stan Rogal and Wound Ballistics by Steven Manners are almost completely consistent in approaching relationships from these two different angles, but the writers' techniques are also very different.
Rogal gives us an extremely conversational first-person narrator who relates attempts at new relationships more often than established ones. In "Flirt", a story about a date that doesn't end as well as he might have liked, the discouraged narrator describes the process as futile: "The never-ending, never-changing cycle of getting together and breaking apart, the high-highs and low-lowsÓ Maybe we never learn. Maybe we never get it right. Maybe we can't."
The unnamed narrator is a dominant presence throughout the book, and Rogal will sometimes filter chunks of a story through him:
"Óhe was screwing one of his desk staff and telling me that it was loveÓ but what could he do, they were both already married and if he left Linda she'd kill herself and me saying that he was being a bit egotistical, kidding that he wasn't that much of a catch, and that suicide was a pretty drastic measure and unlikely, except in the movies, and him replying that I didn't know her, I didn't know what she was capable of, and me answering that's true, to a point ('cause I did know her, though only in the sense where you think you know someone then possibly later discovering you didn't know them at all¨the shit hitting the fan and so on), and yetÓ"
Events and dialogue are sometimes translated and described by the narrator. This is less engaging than witnessing direct action and wears thin quickly. The above sample is from the title story, "Tell Him You're Married", in which the narrator, let's call him Joe, helps a waitress deal with the physical advances of a customer. Joe agrees to pose as her husband. After an exchange between the two men, Joe fools around with the waitress in the parking lot, then cycles home. It seems as if Rogal wants to portray this character as likable, but he's actually shallow, frequently stopping to describe the waitress: "lips that could suck chrome from a fender, a chipped front tooth, ample-sized breasts and a derriere with room to roam." I don't think Rogal intends for the waitress to be a prize¨more of an object than an individual¨but by assigning Joe the dominant voice we don't get to know her. And the contrast between the two men should have been stronger for the story to be more effective, unless the author intended to make a statement about men in general.
At times, Joe appears capable of deeper observation, as in the story Friends: "People get married in the summer, divorced in the winter¨this was September." The story concerns some friends conspiring to get one of the group drunk (drinking and sex go on in all of the stories). They succeed, and Joe volunteers to take the drunk friend home to his wife, who had been expecting him to come home for a special dinner. Upset, she turns to him and chokes out the words, "I thought you were supposed to be his friends." Rogal has his narrator make some good observations which imply a little regret on his part: "I tipped my head up toward the skyÓ In the grand scheme of things, nothing had changed. Nothing would have changed." But at the same time his friend's wife is "not unattractive" and Joe appears about as upset that she didn't jump him: "I tried to imagine what she'd be like in bed right now, charged as she was with such strong emotions." Again, this confuses the ending and dilutes the impact.
Rogal has more success in stories like "Hard Line", about a night of phone calls Joe receives from an emotionally distraught father, and "Family Portrait, Sepia Tones", in which his brother dies. These stories are told with more emotional clarity and directness, with minimal intrusion from the narrator. In "The Couple Downstairs", Joe and his current girlfriend debate whether or not to interfere with what is obviously a fight: "KarenÓ you can't fix people if they don't want to be fixed; if they don't even know that something is broken." The dialogue rings true¨one can easily picture such a discussion happening.
In contrast to Rogal, Steven Manners often begins his stories with couples that have been together for some time. In "Journey with Maps", a couple is on a road trip, and the reader quickly discerns tension: "Ray nodded even though she wasn't looking." There are already poisoned feelings ("I should never have told you about that," Margaret said, "I should never tell you anything"), as well as a shared mythology:
"I'm an idiot when it comes to directions."
"You are. You are an idiot. I don't understand it."
We watch as the characters eventually stumble across the moment when the relationship quietly dissolves: "'You're not happy with me,' Ray said flatly, not really asking a question."
In "Mirror", we find a relationship that's ongoing, though the two characters stopped appreciating each other long ago: "I held her until she stirred uncomfortably. 'You're making me hot,' Mia complained." Manners inserts some vampire imagery here, implying that the relationship isn't healthy¨a habit which no longer satisfies but which neither of the two is willing to break: "I press my mouth against hers, biting at herÓ" "Mia rubbed night cream onto her throat. Such a pretty throat."
Manners's stories go beyond the breakdown of relationships. His characters are conscious of chunks of time slipping away and of slow, eroding change. In the Manners collection even when a relationship does work out, things change, people die. "That Last Day in Paris" is heavy with sadness, the inevitability of time erasing memory: "On that last day in Paris they rented bicycles, or perhaps mopeds." Manners comes close to making the point too obvious, with the characters making comments like "Everything changes, all the time. We forget that. We forget that we were different once," and "Will you always remember this day?" Still, the story evokes a palpable sense of loss in the reader.
There are some extremely dark stories here as well. The title story, "Wound Ballistics", shows us a couple as close to their guns as they are to each other. In "Mouse", a man rants about the mouse he uses as an excuse for his habit of isolating himself: "Everything was finally getting back to the way it used to be. So you can understand how upset I was when the mouse appeared."
Manners's collection is the more complex and subtle of the two, though it should also be said that with his more direct approach, Rogal may have a different goal. In some ways the books actually compliment each other very well. Both seem to be shrugging resignedly, unable to explain why all of us keep struggling with relationships and with life, fighting to swim upstream for no apparent purpose. Fair enough. It isn't something easily explained. ˛