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«Hardly Knew Her», Laura Lippman

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INTRODUCTION

By anyone’s estimation, Laura Lippman is doing all right. She’s a New York Times bestselling author, is highly respected by her peers and the critical establishment, and has carved out a nice life for herself in Baltimore, a city she loves and represents. Which begs the question: why a short story collection?

It’s not like she needs to feed the pipeline with product. This isn’t a stopgap measure to appease the public while she struggles with her next book. She’s certainly not delinquent in the delivery of a novel to her publisher. Shoot, Laura has consistently published quality, challenging novels every year since she’s been at this. Plus, she’s found a large audience.

So now, time to cash in. Right?

That’s what you’d assume. Readers should be wary, having been burned in the past by writers who have exploited their success by publishing tossed-off collections of odds and ends and never-should-have-been short stories. But once you begin to read this anthology, you’ll find that Laura’s stories stand apart from her novels in revelatory and satisfying ways. Plus, they’re beautifully written and contain the kind of offbeat observations and insights that someday, no doubt, will come to be known as “Lippman moments.” Finally, these stories tell actual stories. Laura, thankfully, is not afraid of plot. (Can you hear me, writing school graduates? Lord, have mercy.)

Do not expect the obvious. There are two Tess Monaghan stories included here, for the Monaghan faithful. One is the crowd-pleasing “The Shoeshine Man’s Regrets,” in which Tess gets an old shoeshine man off (not like that, and you ought to wash your mind out with soap for thinking it). As a bonus, there is a clever, revealing “interview” with Tess, “The Accidental Detective” (all respect to Baltimore ’s own Anne Tyler), as well.

The centerpiece of this book is a novella, “Scratch a Woman,” that was written for this collection. To say that it is about a suburban prostitute and her twisted sister does not do it justice. It has so much going on in it, in terms of ideas, that it could easily be expanded into a novel (and a very interesting film). It is one of the finest pieces of writing that Laura has done.

The rest of the collection includes tales told from a variety of viewpoints. I count five first-person stories, and many others from the perspective of women ranging from teens to aged, two from men who have been less than faithful to their wives (spousal betrayal being somewhat of a recurring theme in these stories, and if you’re thinking of pulling the trigger yourself, rest uneasy that, in Laura’s world, cheating never ends well), and two from the POV of young black men. In all of them, I was completely convinced of the voices. And, in case anyone got the impression that Laura only knows Baltimore, there is an entire section devoted to stories set in places like Dublin (“Honor Bar”), Washington, D.C. (“ARM and the Woman”), and New Orleans (the harrowing “Pony Girl,” a mythic ode to the dark side of the party).

There are many high moments, points when you stop reading and say, “Damn, she’s good,” but let me mention just a few. “Easy as A-B-C,” concerning a working-class contractor and his psychosexual relationship with one of the new breed of moneyed Locust Point residents, says more about the changing modern city, in its economical way, than most novelists manage in their latest door-stopper. “The Crack Cocaine Diet” hits like a bat to the temple, a “wacky” tour de force from Laura that is as funny as it is surprising. “Hardly Knew Her,” describing a Beth Steel family in 1975 Dundalk -a girl, Sofia, and her degenerate gambler father is stunning in its emotional nuance and period detail. In “Femme Fatale,” a woman of sixty-eight gets involved in senior citizen porn, with unexpected results. “Dear Penthouse Forum (A First Draft),” whose plot I will not describe, is inventive and somewhat twisted. Actually, it’s kinda sick (get help, Laura, but don’t stop writing).

With each year, and each book, Laura Lippman’s work has gotten deeper, more intricate, and more ambitious. This collection makes a strong case for her range and talent. She got both, in spades.

George Pelecanos

SILVER SPRING, MARYLAND

PART I. GIRLS GONE WILD

THE CRACK COCAINE DIET

I had just broken up with Brandon and Molly had just broken up with Keith, so we needed new dresses to go to this party where we knew they were both going to be. But before we could buy the dresses, we needed to lose weight because we had to look fabulous, kiss-my-ass-fuck-you fabulous. Kiss-my-ass-fuck-you-and-your-dick-is-really-tiny fabulous. Because, after all, Brandon and Keith were going to be at this party, and if we couldn’t get new boyfriends in less than eight days, we could at least go down a dress size and look so good that Brandon and Keith and everybody else in the immediate vicinity would wonder how they ever let us go. I mean, yes, technically, they broke up with us, but we had been thinking about it, weighing the pros and cons. (Pro: they spent money on us. Con: they were childish. Pro: we had them. Con: tiny dicks, see above.) See, we were being methodical and they were just all impulsive, the way guys are. That would be another con-poor impulse control. Me, I never do anything without thinking it through very carefully. Anyway, I’m not sure what went down with Molly and Keith, but Brandon said if he wanted to be nagged all the time, he’d move back in with his mother, and I said, “Well, given that she still does your laundry and makes you food, it’s not as if you really moved out,” and that was that. No big loss.

Still, we had to look so great that other guys would be punching our exes in the arms and saying, “What, are you crazy?” Everything is about spin, even dating. It’s always better to be the dumper instead of the dumpee, and if you have to be the loser, then you need to find a way of being superior. And that was going to take about seven pounds for me, as many as ten for Molly, who doesn’t have my discipline and had been doing some serious breakup eating for the past three weeks. She went facedown in the Ding Dongs, danced with the Devil Dogs, became a Ho Ho ho. As for myself, I’m a salty girl, and I admit I had the Pringles Light can upended in my mouth for a couple of days.

So, anyway, Molly said Atkins, and I said not fast enough, and then I said a fast-fast, and Molly said she saw little lights in front of her eyes the last time she tried to go no food, and she said cabbage soup and I said it gives me gas, and then she said pills, and I said all the doctors we knew were too tight with their scrips, even her dentist boss since she stopped blowing him. And, finally, Molly had a good idea and said: “Cocaine!”

This merited consideration. Molly and I had never done more than a little recreational coke, always provided by boyfriends who were trying to impress us, but even my short-term experience indicated it would probably do the trick. The tiniest bit revved you up for hours and you raced around and around, and it wasn’t that you weren’t hungry, more like you had never even heard of food, it was just some quaint custom from the olden days, like square dancing. I mean, you could do it in theory, but why would you?

“Okay,” I said. “Only where do we get it?” After all, we’re girls, girly girls. I had been drinking and smoking pot since I was sixteen, but I certainly didn’t buy it. That’s what boyfriends were for. Pro: Brandon bought my drinks, and if you don’t have to lay out cash for alcohol, you can buy a lot more shoes.


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