rev. of The Truly Needy and Other Stories by Lucy Honig

Issue #80
Winter 1999-00

The Truly Needy and Other Stories 
Stories by Lucy Honig. Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, $22.50 cloth. Reviewed by Pedro Ponce.

The title of Lucy Honig’s debut collection, winner of the 1999 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, echoes the familiar plea of fundraisers and activists to forget selfish personal concerns and remember the less fortunate. But for Honig, helping the truly needy can sometimes be a losing battle with hunger, addiction, and less tangible obstacles.

Maria Perez, the protagonist of “English as a Second Language,” has survived persecution in Guatemala including the loss of her husband and two sons and made a life in New York City for herself and her remaining children. While she has overcome poverty and violence, she has yet to overcome the well-meaning condescension of her adoptive country. At a ceremony honoring her accomplishments in an ESL class, the mayor of New York turns Maria’s recollection of an assassination into a political joke for the television cameras, minimizing the brutality she remembers: “Two older sons were dragged through the dirt, chickens squawking in mad confusion, feathers flying. She heard more gunshots in the distance, screams, chickens squawking. She heard, she ran.”

In “After,” need is purely personal. The summer after her father’s death, Ellen Frisch works at his roadside produce stand and wrestles with her unresolved anger toward him. In one of the book’s most evocative scenes, Ellen escapes to the shelter of a motel pool: “She forgot air, she forgot the limits of her lungs, she forgot the limits of her skin, which now interjoined with water.” But Ellen’s escape is short-lived: “[H]er head surfaced, and she breathed in the hot air, gasping like a fish that did not want air, and this air in her lungs and on her shoulders and around her face seemed to pull her body and mind into separate parts again.”

The title piece, one of four linked stories that form the second half of the book, concerns Rita, the executive director of a New York City community group for the poor. Honig is unsparing in her portrayal of the politics that can affect even a charitable organization. When Rita, a staunch believer in 1960’s idealism, decides to reach out on her own to a homeless woman, she finds herself in over her head. Later, livid that the woman missed an appointment, Rita sees her hunched form outside and chases her down: ” ‘I had
soup for you, DeeDee,’ Rita cried, reaching out for Deirdre’s shoulder. ‘And mocha torte!’ As soon as she made physical contact, Deirdre lurched away and stood up straight, suddenly very tall. The scarf fell away from her face. But it was a man’s belligerent, raging face, not Deirdre at all.”

Just who are the truly needy? Are they the poor and homeless that society pushes aside? Or are they those who, in helping the poor, only foster another form of self-interest? These questions inform Honig’s provocative collection.

Pedro Ponce’s fiction has appeared in Gargoyle
and is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review.
He has published book reviews in Rain Taxi,Washington City Paper,
and Legal Times.