rev. of Come Up and See Me Sometime by Erika Krouse

Issue #86
Winter 2001-02

Come Up and See Me Sometime
Short stories by Erika Krouse. Scribner, $22.00 cloth. Reviewed by Debra Spark.

Mae West provides the title for Erika Krouse’s debut book,
Come Up and See Me Sometime, and also the epigraphs for the collection’s thirteen stories. But the bawdy self-confidence of Mae West (“I’m single because I was born that way”) eludes Krouse’s heroines, who are all thirty-somethings struggling with the loneliness of their relationships with men. They’re a funny but rather fragile lot, apt to strike a contemporary casting director as less of a Ms. West than a hybrid of the oddball hipness of a Tama Janowitz with the wry knowing manner of an Ellen Barkin.

Problem #1 for most of these heroines: they’re not exactly picking from the top of the heap when it comes to men. One woman romances a heroin addict. Another sleeps with married men. Still others end up with wife-beaters. When a decent, ready-to-commit guy shows up, Krouse’s women are often too damaged to go for it, though some manage to take baby steps to real intimacy, as when a battered wife begins a tentative romance with her landlord, the chef who owns the Chinese restaurant below her apartment. All of this might seem like familiar territory bad men, wounded women; hello, Thelma, meet Louise but Krouse’s curious sensibility, emotional knowledge, and playful one-liners keep us closer to the early work of Lorrie Moore or Pam Houston than the dime-store truths of a nightly sitcom. What’s more, beneath the characters’ mutual doubts about marriage, family, and men is an honest longing for connection, one that doesn’t register as clichéd, because it is so clearly painful.

One story, “No Universe,” opens with this quip: “When I heard the news I said, ‘How can I be infertile when I’m the only member of my family that’s ever gone to therapy?’ ” The jokes continue. The narrator complains about women who say they want to spend all their time at home with their babies: “Yeah, and I just want to spend all my time in the Oval Office with Ben and Jerry, but we can’t all manage that, can we?” But the story itself proceeds to a place of real grief, with the narrator’s frenzied search for a baby she has misplaced, and then her sense, when she finally finds the infant, that the child was “waiting for me to name it. You know. The damage.”

In the end, emotional damage
is this collection’s subject. In “Momentum,” Krouse details a woman’s sense of disintegration as she and her longtime boyfriend break up. In “Too Big to Float,” she describes a woman too frightened for the very connection for which she longs. And yet these stories are funny: ironic and unsentimental. About a possible partner, one woman says, “I liked him. He was very good-looking. I could already guess how this was going to go. It starts out, I hate him, he hates me. Then we discover our common bond death. We fall in love and have children.” When a young woman and her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend step out of a museum and see a full rainbow clear across the sky, Krouse writes, “They looked at it together, end to end. Irene thought it was the dumbest thing she had ever seen.”

Though Krouse’s stories often end up in dark places, they don’t always, as in “Impersonators,” when one woman, in finally naming her desire, experiences what her friend calls “vu déjà the feeling that you’ve never been here before.” And the collection as a whole rises above the darkness of the pain it describes, simply by being able to articulate how bad bad can feel in a truthful, clear, and entertaining way.

Debra Spark’s most recent novel, The Ghost of Bridgetown,
was published this year by Graywolf Press.