rev. of You Have the Wrong Man by Maria Flook

Issue #69
Spring 1996

You Have the Wrong Man 
Stories by Maria Flook. Pantheon Books, $22.00 cloth. Reviewed by Fred Leebron.

First as a poet, and then as a novelist, Maria Flook has established herself as a writer with an astonishing vision an artist who refuses to blink. Now, in her first book of stories,
You Have the Wrong Man, Flook continues to mine, with richness and sophistication, the difficult lives of desperate people. These eight complex and relentless stories chronicle men and women who quixotically, perpetually embrace wrong lovers and company. The language is as hard and sharp as the lives the stories reveal, and yet the book is rooted in elegance and surprising humor.

In “Lane,” an ambivalent medical student analyzes his lengthy crush on a calculating but naïve college classmate who has since become a bestselling novelist. He’s the wrong man for Lane, she’s the wrong woman for him, and their relationship is rife with squirming misfortune: he suffers from a disfiguring scar that virtually “halves” his face; she earns a black eye in a bar fight; his right hand endures one of the most excruciating minutes of fiction squashed within a window; and ultimately she dissolves his amorous intentions by opening her gown to reveal “a tiny oblong sore spoiling the silky vestibule below her clitoris.” “I have learned to embrace the grimy little mysteries I come across,” the medical student notes at one point, “giving full rein to my sense of humor.”

All of the major players in this collection are scarred and yet remain “still in harm’s way.” “Prince of Motown” is the ultimate wrong man story. Rick’s mother is an assistant director at a shelter for battered and abused women, where Iris, a teenage mother of a sickly infant, seeks refuge. She hasn’t been beaten by her boyfriend, but by the boyfriend’s
aunt, who swats the girl with a box of Reynolds Wrap, “sawing its serrated edge across Iris’s face . . . She tried to protect herself but Estelle sawed the box across Iris’s tight jawbone. The strip of metal teeth was sharp and left deep cuts. Dots of blood lifted in two intersecting ellipses lines. Iris wiped her chin and blood came off on the palm of her hand. ‘You cut me! You cut me!’ ” The older women at the shelter match Iris wound for wound as they exchange war stories one morning, delivering a riveting catalog of abuse, but emotionally, Iris is already “many dangerous miles ahead.” She has little choice but to return to the household of her baby’s father, his mother, and his aunt.

These stories are remarkably honest, and their language is as clean and brilliant as something scrubbed and polished. The transvestite in “Exchange Street” knows that her boyfriend wants “to enter her where her stitches tugged her sphincter together like a sausage casing. Venice told him, ‘I’m probably going to faint, you understand?’ ” In “Rhode Island Fish Company,” the scarred tattoo on the narrator’s niece’s arm looks like “the fell on a leg of lamb, the blotted violet ink of a meat inspector’s stamp beneath a yellow scab the size of a wallet,” and the niece’s hair dressing smells “peculiarly familiar, like diaphragm jelly.” The sexual attraction the narrator feels for her niece’s boyfriend is “the current of heat that flows upward from the pelvis to the brain in an instant recognition. I felt its flashpowder aftertaste in the back of my throat.”

You Have the Wrong Man, Flook evocatively and intelligently portrays men and women confronting their desperation, while trying to keep intact that narrow and vital strip of energy with which they were born. Poetic in language and novelistic in scope, these stories unveil new truths with an unerring and compassionate voice.

Fred Leebron’s first novel, Out West,
will be published by Doubleday this year. He is also co-editor of the forthcoming Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology.