People Like You

People Like You

By Margaret Malone
Atelier26 Books, 2015, 150 pages

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If you’ve read more than a few of my postings on Small Press Picks, you might have noticed that I’m a big fan of the short story, and I’m always eager to check out new collections from small/indie publishers. Recently, I read Margaret Malone’s début story collection, People Like You, and I can’t say enough how much I enjoyed this hilarious, wonderfully strange, and occasionally heartbreaking book.

All of the stories are told from the first-person point of view, immersing readers deeply in the desires, uncertainties, and difficulties faced by each character, including a woman who is trying, unsuccessfully, to conceive a child; a middle schooler who is both fascinated with, and horrified by, her emerging sexuality; and a seventeen-year-old who seems as uncertain about marriage as she is about the man she’s just become engaged to.

In an interview with Alex Behr for Propeller Magazine, Malone discussed her use of the first person (and present tense) in her stories: “I do it on purpose because I’m such a control freak. It’s easier to pull the reader in and drag them into what you want to drag them into. In first-person, present tense, I feel like I have you. I really have someone by the hand.”

Here is a sampling of just one character’s perspective (that of the burgeoningly sexual middle schooler), from the story “The Only One”:

I knew that I wanted to know what sex was but I also knew I wasn’t supposed to have sex because having sex would mean I was a slut and if I was a slut everyone would want to have sex with me, and then I’d be stuck having sex with everybody all the time, which sounds exhausting. I don’t know when I’d have time to practice the piano.

Like so many of the stories in People Like You, “The Only One” is equally funny and truthful, all the more so because of its plainspokenness.

Several stories in the collection bring together, delightfully, the ordinary and the strange. “The Things We Know Nothing About” presents the not-so-unusual situation of a pregnant woman, Delilah, who is ambivalent about motherhood, who is already missing the “just me” days that will be behind her once her “blanketed lump” arrives. Delilah keeps drinking throughout her pregnancy, as if to get through it as best she can.

The more unusual aspect of the story is that Delilah and her husband, Staffy, have recently moved into a neighborhood frequented by hookers and their johns, some of whom have sex in parked cars just beyond the hedges that separate Delilah and Staffy’s house from the street. This infuriates Delilah, and on the evening of her birthday, Staffy presents her with the gift of a Super Search Eye Spotlight, “a superhuman ray, a perfect straight beam, like a mobile sun I controlled.” The perfect tool, in other words, for catching johns and hookers in the act. Later that night, after fortifying herself with some wine, Delilah gets a chance to put the Super Search Eye to work. But this final scene of the story ends up shedding more light onto her anxiety over her future as a mother than onto anything going on behind the hedges.

One of my favorite stories in the collection is “Good Company,” in which the narrator, Caroline, and her boyfriend, Marcus, are paying a Christmastime visit to Marcus’s parents, whom Caroline is meeting for the first time.

Things aren’t going great for the young couple, and, as Caroline puts it, “the relationship outside of sex [is] not what it used to be.” Although there are glimmers of hope and warmth between the two of them, their future feels uncertain.

The future for Marcus’s mother, Marianne, is even darker. “[S]he is sort of dying,” as Marcus puts it. In response, Caroline thinks, “Her dying makes me want her to like me,” and it turns out that Marianne does come to like Caroline, very much. As the two of them get to know each other, sharing cigarettes and tequila shots on the patio, as, toward the end of the story, they travel into Las Vegas to pick Marcus’s father up from his casino job, they form a bond that at times transcends the unhappier realities of their lives. The story reminds me of the power of certain circumstantial—even accidental—relationships. However improbable or surprising, however fleeting, they sometimes have the power to transform us and to create moments that we will never forget.

One line from “Good Company”—one of Caroline’s observations of Marianne—stays with me especially: “When she takes her lips from the edge of the [tequila] glass, there will be a thick smudge of red lipstick remaining there, evidence of her existence, proof that no matter what happens, she is here now.”

Again, I can’t recommend People Like You highly enough, and I was pleased to learn that Margaret Malone is working on another book of short stories. I’m looking forward to reading it!

Would My Pick be Your Pick?

If you're interested in ________, the answer may be "Yes":
▪ The short stories of Lorrie Moore
▪ The short stories of George Saunders
▪ Various works of Denis Johnson, especially Jesus’ Son