Kathy Flann, whose fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, The North American Review, The Michigan Quarterly Review, New Stories from the South, and other publications, teaches at Goucher College in Baltimore, where she lives with her husband, Howard. Her previous publications include a short story collection, Smoky Ordinary, and novella entitled Mad Dog.
In her smart and beautifully observed stories, Kathy Flann drops us straight into the complex lives of a collection of imperfect strivers, who want love, want to be good, or want somehow to transcend their makeshift existences, and who are often their own worst enemies. Each of these tales is simultaneously a portrait of its grim-funny, yet touching protagonist and of a land, very like the United States, where everything is possible, and nothing is quite what it should be.
So much depends upon a title. Titles can do a lot of different work for a book, but a truly useful one is invaluable. I found the title of Kathy Flann’s new short story collection Get a Grip particularly significant. It’s possible that I’m going off on my own a bit, but I think the math adds up regardless.
Playing devil’s advocate against myself briefly, “Get a Grip” is the title of one of the stories in the collection. Many collections take their title from one of the stories and there’s no more to it. It’s a tradition. However, all of the stories in Get a Grip seem to involve characters getting some kind of grip on some aspect of their lives.
The elderly mother in “Neuropathy” struggles to get a variety of different grips, both literal and metaphorical. She (phrased as a second person “You” in the story) struggles with metaphorical grips, coming to terms with the death of her husband and increasing independence of her son, as well as a literal grip relating to a crippling arm injury she received in a car accident. In fact, she desperately needs to get a grip on living life in general:
Ever since Wayne died, you crave a calling, a flourishing endeavor, like the ones church friends have—Monique gathers restaurant breath mints for women’s shelters, Pat takes old people to The Golden Corral on meatloaf night, and Ken fills out tax returns for the needy. You have tried some things that fizzled, like a used medical equipment bazaar and a clothing drive for big & tall homeless men.
But then God showed you. A junkie you’d given a dollar staggered off the harbor wall. Dropped. Disappeared under the brackish film. His matted hair drifted on the surface like seaweed. You watched, frozen. It seemed like a long time before that soldier in fatigues brushed past and sprang from the edge. He lugged the incoherent, babbling man, shoved him onto the retaining wall. The soldier, freckled baby-face all red, climbed out and hurried away, trailing water. Didn’t even give his name. This was it. Could anyone be more inspiring, more filled with the holy spirit, than a warrior, someone who tamed death?
Similarly, in “Show of Force” Franz tries to get a grip on his son and wife, hoping that they haven’t drifted so far away from him as to be unreachable:
“I’m the champion of the whole country. I’ve got an ATV and ten grand and, as of next year, a learner’s permit.” He leaned forward, making sharp, angry gestures with his hands. “What happens is I go to Korea for the World Cyber Games. Mom’s talking home schooling! She says we’re moving to Vegas!” He laughed and put his hand up for a high five. “I’m going to be the Tony Hawk of Firestorm3.”
The 1980’s Tony Hawk reference, he knew, had been for his benefit. And some distant part of him, in a windy backwater of his brain, knew the high five was a monumental gesture from Rory. But he was too stunned to return it. Korea? Vegas? Home schooling? Why hadn’t Babette mentioned any of this? He touched his forehead, cold from the air conditioner.
Alexander is trying to get a grasp on the fact that his driven career isn’t the personal connection he really needs in “Little Big Show.” Ned grips his life failures relating to his intense feelings for his ex-wife and love for his current wife in “Homecoming.” “Leaving Reno” involves Fiona trying to get a handle on various complex family relationships. All of the stories seem to involve getting a grip in one way or another, grips that the characters desperately need to have. Some get them to one level of success or another, but some do not. Or, perhaps the grips are more complicated than can be evaluated with a simple get/not get analysis.
Personally, I found this to be particularly compelling. Whatever people want to consider universal, trying to get a handle on the significant forces in our lives has to be on that list. Some of us do better jobs than others in looking like we know what we’re doing, but (unless you all are way better than me) we spend most of our lives just trying to keep up, keep our heads above water as the tremendous flow of life’s complexities blast at us. I must spend most of my time trying to get a grip. How could that sort of struggle fail to engage me? My empathy is flaring as I read, each and every time.
These are some intense stories. The different ‘grips’ that these wildly different characters are trying to get are unique, but share the same level of urgency. I can’t imagine reading Get a Grip and not getting pulled in by that, feeling it with the characters. I don’t know if Flann intended to indicate that commonality when selecting the title, but it works for me. The stories all certainly do.