Stephen Sangirardi, Life on the Planet: 7 Stories (New Haven: Wild Leaf Press, 2009).
Guest review by Eric Rosenbaum
A friend, one of the author’s former students, recommended this book to me. She even gave me a copy of the book, so I figured, why not read it? I was glad I did. Quite simply, these are some of the most original stories in the Canon sense of the word that I have ever perused. Life on the Planet by Stephen Sangirardi reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s original title of The Waste Land, namely — “He does the police in different voices.” Every story but one — the opening story entitled “Murphy vs Clark,” is told from the limited omniscient third-person point of view; every voice is different. The aforementioned story paradigmatizes the unreliable narrator in the persona of a Sid Finkman, an elderly Jewish man who narrates the tragic events which occur when two African-American families move into a white neighborhood in New Rochelle. The conflict that develops, however, features the wives of the two Black families. I could not stop reading this irresistible story whose ending is both poignant and comic.
Stephen Sangirardi likes to venture into Intertexuality. This type of fiction occurs when an author goes beyond the text and introduces characters from a different, well-known story — somewhat akin to what John Gardner did so well in Grendel and what T.C. Boyle does in a handful of his short stories. Intertexuality can also occur when the writer expands the original text into a fictional sequel. A case in point are the stories “Orpheus Aging,” “The New Life of Michael Cassio,” and “Dido and Aeneas.” In the first story, Orpheus comes upon the three pigs being harassed by the big bad wolf and tries to help the porcine victims by playing his harp and soothing the savage beast. During the course of the story, Orpheus encounters an old friend of his, the goddess Diana, as the bard bemoans his advancing age: ‘a man was old when his regrets replaced his dreams.’ In the sequel to Othello, Michael Cassio is introduced to Iago’s supposed nephew, a Claudio with the reputation of a lady-killer. Terrified by what may happen if the sexual Claudio meets Cassio’s wife Bianca—the courtesan from the original play — Cassio eventually falls prey to the same mistake as Othello, plunging into jealous torment and fantasizing how Claudio and Bianca will gaze at each when first meeting. If the reader is willing to suspend his or her disbelief and accepts the author’s premise that satanic Iago had a nephew, the story is a powerful foray into the jealous mind and recalled for me Tolstoy’s “The Kreutzer Sonata” in which a husband is also beset with ‘an intoxication with his own humiliation.' The third of the Intertexual stories also involves a soupçon of metafiction. In “Dido and Aeneas”, we meet an English teacher undergoing a marital crisis of his own who is preparing a lesson from The Aeneid. The story, told in the present tense and salted with contemporary idioms, explores Dido’s fractured heart as she spreads her arms akimbo, stamps her sandaled foot, and attempts to bar Aeneas from walking out that portal; there is even an amphora flung Aeneas’ way. After Aeneas’ egress, Sangirardi launches into a somewhat Freudian explanation of Dido’s reaction to her faithless lover’s departure, including words of hypothesis from Susan B. Anthony. All three stories were, for me, extraordinary.
The fourth story in Sangirardi’s collection that brushes the outskirts of Intertexuality is based on The Second Book of Kings in the Bible. This eponymous tale focuses on Elisha and how he is ‘instrumental’ in making pregnant the widow of this Scriptural text. (Elisha, of course, was the Apprentice of Elijah.) What makes the story intriguing is Elisha’s uncle — ‘Gehazi the dipsomaniac’ who proffers advice to his lovesick nephew. Freudians will have field day with this tale as Elisha sees in this aging beautiful wife of another man a version of his late mother. The final two pieces in this second book of Sangirardi short stories are written in the more traditional mode from the main character’s third-person perspective. “Mother and Daughter” relates the dread of a young girl awaiting her awkward mother’s speech on the occasion of the girl Rachel’s graduation. Betty Bracco is on the Holy Name stage, and Rachel holds her breath, praying to all available gods and patron saints that her mother doesn’t humiliate her in front of the whole parish. What child has not been embarrassed by his or her parents’ public display? The conclusion is a surprising epiphany. Finally, the concluding story called “Inverse Proportion” is most likely a portrait of the author himself, a high school English teacher who didn’t quite live up to the expectations that others had of him when he was a hot-shot graduate student. This is a fine tale, again, for anyone who rues the fact that his/her regrets have replaced younger dreams, and is tempted to displace attendant frustrations with Dostoyevski-like madness on family, friends, and acquaintances. I found myself laughing aloud as I read this story.
All in all, I found Life on the Planet to be a brilliant collection of stories, each one centering on a universal conflict: social, sexual, familial, bestial — and conflict, it goes without saying, is what good fiction is all about. At times, admittedly, the author seems to have ingested a thesaurus, as we see in the more literary and mythological stories, and perhaps “Inverse Proportion” is a bit longer than it should be. Nonetheless, this is an original group of tales that vividly illustrates the ‘fury and the mire of human veins.’ To top it off, wry humor is just as prevalent in these vividly told tales. I want to read more of Stephen Sangirardi’s work.
Review by Eric Rosenbaum (Erosetree0312@gmail.com) from http://www.wildleafpress.com/.