Review by Katherine Luck
Black Lawrence Press
Publication date: August 20, 2019
Beth Mayer both begins and concludes her debut short story collection with tales of death. Opening with a young boy getting his first taste of the terrifying banality of mortality and closing with a first-hand account of an average workday for the angel of death, the 16 stories in We Will Tell You Otherwise are by turns fatalistic, optimistic, humble, and highbrow. It’s a slim volume of just 140 pages, but the stories it contains are neither slight nor incidental. Although Mayer’s conclusions are often a bit too abrupt, her stories are meaningfully characterized and wrestle compellingly with the psychological divide between Midwestern America and its two coasts.
Mayer’s fascination with death is a steel scaffold straight out of the Rust Belt upon which her stories are built. Sometimes, death is welcome as a release from pain, or from encroaching senility, or from the danger a very bad man can pose to an unprotected girl trying to survive in an indifferent town. Other times, death is a source of resentment, as in “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know,” in which the father of a terminally ill child rails against the public performance of dying in the era of social media. “Once upon a time, [my wife] was a straight cis-female, but now she self-identifies as ‘mom-of-a-terminal-kid.’ When she is not taking care of Ethan, she frequents these bullshit blogs full of saccharine mantras and cherubic-angel-kiddos holding court in the clouds. They are her porn.” In Mayer’s hands, death is ubiquitous and only a bit tackier than an Olive Garden gift card.
More dreadful than death, yet frequently as comforting, is the world of the Midwest flyover states, which Mayer juxtaposes with the harsher, unwelcoming territory of the “coastal elites.” It’s the blue-collar charm of a chain restaurant versus the pretentious impenetrability of a cartoon in The New Yorker—something you think you shouldn’t enjoy but do and feel guilty about, contrasted with something you think you should enjoy but don’t and feel guilty about.
This middle-class, middle-American guilt illuminates the stories of We Will Tell You Otherwise like a halo. Such guilt can’t be eluded. It appears in a long-suffering mother determined to enjoy a family road trip to Niagara Falls moments before the Love Canal disaster strikes in “Let Her Tell the Way.” It haunts a very young parent in “Some Good News to Tell” when she buys herself “a small gourmet coffee from a shop at the end of the street” instead of sensibly bringing her own homebrew in a Thermos, and consequently almost loses her child.
And it’s ever-present in “What We Tell Ourselves,” a pointed vignette about “summer people”—Midwestern city folks staying at a remote lake house who aspire to be sophisticated hipsters. “Our blue screens glow on the screen porch at night. Even at the lake house, we like our Wi-Fi and Netflix. We don’t apologize. This is who we are.” But it’s not who they are—not really. These characters remain conflicted about whether they are savvy elites slumming in a tiny hamlet, or down-to-earth Midwesterners who are no better than anyone else in town, in the same way that many of the other characters in the collection are conflicted. They should have known better, say the stories in We Will Tell You Otherwise. They should have known their place.
This sense of place, and the idea that the characters—and the reader—must be told who they really are, form the central girder of Mayer’s collection. Each story includes the word “tell,” as does the title of the book itself. And it’s during these instances of “telling,” these confessions and criticisms, that Mayer’s writing shines. She crafts characters who aren’t extraordinary as such, but unforgettable. From Cha Cha McGee, a neglected teen who takes charge of her life by moving in with a small-town prostitute, to Walter Bombardier, a curmudgeonly, Luddite book collector who refuses either to use the internet or to read the very books he covets, Mayer’s stories overflow with people who struggle against a society that tells them who they should be and how they should live. As both a resident of a flyover state (Minnesota) and a product of a coastal elite system (the MFA), Mayer seems to be contending with not only her characters’ dualistic views of the American middle-class lifestyle, but her own.
Unfortunately, though the stories are deeply imagined and even more deeply felt by the author, there’s a brevity to them that hints at a lack of confidence, as though Mayer isn’t sure they’re worthy of being told. She seems to fear that she will lose her reader’s attention if she doesn’t rush through the narrative and wrap things up quickly. Her best pieces allow room for the plot to breathe, and these are consequently the longer stories in the collection. Her shortest stories, on the other hand, often don’t end but simply stop, as if Mayer had hit a self-imposed word count. This can be maddening, as a story arc that could use more narrative space to reach a satisfying conclusion instead screeches to a halt with a flimsy platitude or punchline.
Though Mayer’s work in this collection earned her the Hudson Prize from Black Lawrence Press, it gives the impression that she’s still developing as a storyteller. But like the mesmerizing and occasionally frustrating stories in We Will Tell You Otherwise, she seems close to making the leap from competence to greatness.
Katherine Luck is an award-winning journalist and author. Her work has appeared in Reuters, Crosscut, The Amistad, and Farmhouse Magazine. She is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom, False Memoir, and In Retrospect. She’s currently killing time in Seattle and online at katherineluck.com.