House Parties (Lynn Levin, Spuyten Duyvil, 2023, 435 pages)
by Anne-Adele Wight
In House Parties, Lynn Levin has produced an ambitious collection of twenty short stories. They range widely, making it difficult to examine them all in a single discussion. However, certain prominent themes emerge, echoing the patterns that underlie Levin’s arrangement of the stories: marital infidelity, the power of a guilty conscience, the ambiguous relationship of humans to the natural world, and the supernatural force inherent in human-made artifacts. These recurring themes reverberate in a primal way, leaving the reader at once uneasy and fascinated.
House Parties opens with “Halfway Falls,” the story of three friends exploring Yosemite. Mysterious hikers (are they real?) persuade them off the trail and close to harm’s way. Dean, sad and stressed over family difficulties, brings a supply of emergency equipment and a sensitivity to nature lacking in his friends. Chuck, the one married man, can’t stop texting his girlfriend during the hike. The men’s safe return, despite their rookie mistakes, affirms them as part of the natural world, however alienated and bumbling. The raven that shadows their hike escorts them back to the trailhead, approving their presence and making sure they leave Yosemite as they found it.
“Monkey Island” takes a different, frightening perspective: here, humanity sets itself in opposition to nature. Casual high school cruelties ruin a class trip to Puerto Rico for Chessie, intelligent and resourceful but introverted and painfully sensitive about her weight. Ignored by her peers, Chessie becomes the center of attention from a troop of wild monkeys after her group abandons her during a field trip. The monkeys act more intelligent than some of Chessie’s classmates; Levin capitalizes on their genetic similarity to humans. A false sense of kinship lands Chessie in mortal danger as the monkeys attack, nearly killing her.
Marital infidelity runs through these stories like a tripwire. Often the idea of adultery threatens a couple’s wholeness as much as the deed itself. “The Husband and the Gypsy” tells in retrospect the anxiety of a fourteen-year-old whose father spends too much time away from home and whose lonely mother encounters temptation. “The Dirty Martini” turns out to be a strip joint to which Norbie, the pitiful protagonist, is dragged by his friend, an unsavory moocher. Norbie’s escapade coincides with and ruins his wife’s birthday. Misery and comedy collide. A hilarious scene, in which three strippers berate Norbie for parking in a handicapped spot, accentuates the evident bitterness of Norbie’s marriage. He and Donna, his wife, can’t avoid rubbing each other the wrong way. A reader thinks, This marriage can’t end too soon, while wondering how long they’re going to drag it out in hope of better times.
“You Take Care Now, Mary Jones” and “Evermay Blair” examine the power of guilt in the aftermath of wrongdoing. Natalie, later Mary Jones, changes her name to avoid not only her murderous mother, but the pending exposure of her many online thefts. In “Evermay Blair,” Kenneth, a respected middle-school vice principal, hits a child with his car in the middle of the night and flees the scene. His efforts to silence his conscience remind us of Poe’s “The Telltale Heart.”
“Frieda and Her Golem” and “The French Milliner’s Model” examine the power of arbitrarily animated objects, both female and feminine, both with distinct personalities. Frieda, a lonely rabbinical student, draws on the storied Golem of Prague to fashion her own companion; Cynthia Ozick’s Puttermesser stories come to mind. Like Ozick’s Xanthippe and like the original Golem of Prague, Frieda’s golem evolves a will of her own and finds the means to carry it out. The narrator of “The French Milliner’s Model” has no esoteric skills, only a long-remembered horror of one of her grandmother’s possessions. When her grandmother bequeaths her the papier-mâché head, her early terrors return as she realizes she can’t get rid of it. Eventually she finds a more positive solution than Frieda finds to the problem of her willful golem, recovering the control she’s given to the painted head.
“House Parties,” the title story, appears at the end of the book, not the beginning. The protagonists, Jess and Rand, have just left Philadelphia to shore up their marriage in a bucolic housing development in the Poconos. Edgewood Village, hacked out of the surrounding woods, exists uneasily with the natural world it despoils. A flock of turkey vultures greet the couple as they drive to their new house––the neighbors in their true predatory form?
The story reveals its complexity as it unrolls. Neighborly friendliness disguises a pattern of serial adultery and whispered nasty gossip. Constant reminders of wildlife at the perimeter keep the community on edge—most of the neighbors have installed fences to protect their cats and backyard chickens from foxes and coyotes. Jess hears rumors of another threat from the coyotes: if a male mates with a female domestic dog, a litter of “coydogs” may result. Sophie, the gun-toting MAGA Republican neighbor, is getting ready to breed her German shepherd and dreads the idea of mixed puppies. The overtones of racism are no accident.
Levin’s characteristic subtlety shows in her placement of the title story at the end of the book. “House Parties” pulls together the themes that drive the longer and weightier of the preceding stories. The inescapability of guilt is treated more subtly here than in “You Take Care Now, Mary Jones” and “Evermay Blair.” The characters in “House Parties” have betrayed not only their marriages, but the surrounding natural world. This story settles the ambiguity of humans’ relationship to nature––are they part of it or an opposing force? Here, humans exist in nature by brutalizing and overpowering it. Their community sanctions illicit coupling, but only for their species, not for canids in heat. Eventually nature moves in and bites them, reclaiming supremacy.
Futile efforts at control drive the plot of “House Parties.” As in “Frieda and Her Golem” and “The French Milliner’s Model,” expectations are confounded, best-laid plans derailed. There’s a saying that life is what happens when you’re busy planning something else. The grotesque penultimate scene in “House Parties” shatters the community, but only for an evening––next day the intrigues will start up again. But the last paragraph, and particularly the last sentence, leave no doubt that companionship has limits and that no one truly understands what it would feel like to live someone else’s life.
Anne-Adele Wight is the author of four books of poetry. Her work has been published internationally in print and online. She lives and writes in Philadelphia.