Black Vodka
Ten Stories
Deborah Levy
(Bloomsbury USA)
The story-line is simple. Joe watched his mother die. Her eyes close. "Then, for five shocking seconds, open again." He is an orphan, though he has dreams, dreams of "cruising America's tremendous steaming tarmac in a chrome machine." He loves London.

He also loves Elisa. He asks her if "there is a better way to live." She says "There must be." She once stuck feathers in her shoes, green plastic butterflies in her hair. "I knew we were destined to marry," he says.

There in the Victorian house where they live.

    the moon is oily, the trees swollen with black blossoms against the chemical sky. Although our interior worlds are volcanic, exotic, troubled, the everyday is beautifully predictable.

They say yes to "the registrar from Orpington ... in all the European languages," and Joe presses his lips "against Elisa's eyelids and leads her to the honeymoon chamber."

So: two orphans grow up, get married, and live in a Victorian house. But this simple tale is a perfect Bible of metaphors that are enough to make you weep. The last two sentences of the last paragraph give a reader the uncanny feel of a perfection of truth and light:

    One day, when Elisa and I are long buried and have turned to dust, I hope a robot boy will find this document and correct my spelling mistakes with his silver fingers. Although he will look nothing like me, he too will be a son without a mother, his eyes open all night long.

A good short story has to be brief, with few characters, artistic jumps and artistic elisions (that make us think we are missing nothing). And, I believe, must contain a good swatch of poetry in its prose.

If those are the paradigms, then Levy seems to makes it into the near-genius class.

"A Better Way to Live," the story above, is the last in the volume. The first of them all, "Black Vodka," wastes no lines, has but three characters: Lisa, Richard (who introduced them to each other), and Ali. Ali got his name from his grade school classmates because they figured him a camel from North Africa, he with a "mound" between his shoulder blades.

At the advertising agency where he works --- and prospers --- they call him "The Crippled Poet." His latest success is Vodka Noir, for to drink Black Vodka is to be in mourning for our lives. At the party announcing the new vodka, he meets Lisa. She's an archaeologist. As he leaves, he gives her a card, but sees that she has drawn on her computer "A picture of a naked, hunchbacked man, with every single organ of his body labelled. That night, he dreams of Poland (again) of a soldier, who "has a humped back under his khaki uniform."

    When I wake up there are always tears on my cheeks, transparent as vodka but warm as rain.

Lisa meets him later at the Polish Club, and he tells her that his mother wanted him to be a priest "because she thought I'd look best in loose-fitting clothes." Lisa laughs, then,

    "You know why I like you, Lisa?"

    "Why do you like me?"

    "Because I think you see me as an archaeological site."

    "I am a bit of an explorer," she says. "I'd like to see the bone that protrudes in your thoracic spine."

The story ends with Lisa kissing Ali full blast in a taxicab on their way to her apartment. The last paragraph of the story may or may not have anything to do with Lisa, camels, Ali, her "sharp white teeth," or the advertising biz ... but is, I contend, as rich as anything that Sharon Olds, Billy Collins, Charles Simic, Robert Haas, Paul Muldoon or anyone else could come up with at a Poetry Flash in Central Park:

    The meter is going berserk like my heartbeat while the moon drifts over the wildlife gardens of the Natural History Museum. Somewhere inside it, pressed under glass, are twelve ghost moths (Hepialus humuli), of earliest evolutionary lineage. These ghosts once flew in pastures, dropped their eggs to the ground and slept through the day. There is so much of the world to record and classify, it's hard to know how to find a language for it. So I am going to start exactly where I am now. Life is beautifuyl! Vodka is black! Pears are naked! Rain is horizontal! Moths are ghosts. Only some of this is true, but you should know that this does not scare me as much as the promise of love.

--- E. J. Lacey
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