Packing a Punch
Drinking Coffee ElsewhereZZ Packer
(Riverhead books · hardcover · $24.95)
It's hard to write a good short story. Honestly, most of the short stories I read last year, whether in magazines or collections, left me stone cold bored. Many of them felt limp, calculated and wimpy. They read like they were written by talented writers who had spent more time in creative writing seminars trying to please their professors with cute sentences than in examining their own lives and the world around them.
Even without a name fit for an assassin, ZZ Packer can hardly be described as wimpy. Despite her youth and pristine academic background—Yale, John Hopkins, the Iowa Writers' Workshop—Packer writes like a woman who's already lived a long life full of torment and self-reflection.
Her prose is somehow both polished and gritty. It's also often hilarious. In the story "Every Tongue Shall Confess," a cross-eyed fundamentalist Christian nurse struggles to deal with an obnoxious patient who she's trying to convert: "She looked around the room for some cue. Whenever she needed an answer, she relied on some sign from the Lord; a fresh beam of sunlight through the window, the hands of a clock folded in prayer, or the flush of a commode."
Passages like these are sharp, funny and fast. That's one of the things I liked most about Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, Packer's debut book of fiction. She wrestles with large themes—racism, religion, culture clashes, youth, rebellion, poverty—but unlike many of her stuffed-shirt peers, she isn't afraid to entertain.
My favorite story in the collection is the first, "Brownies," about a troop of African-American girls who go away to camp, come across a troop of white Brownies, and vow to "kick the asses of each and every girl" among them. The story is amusing at first, but grows progressively more disturbing as the Black girls falsely accuse the white girls of uttering racial slurs. "Brownies" has two major plot twists and a gut-wrencher of an ending.
Although I didn't love the other stories quite as much, the rest of the book is rock solid. There isn't a clinker in the bunch. Another of Packer's virtues is that she possesses a broad narrative range. Although several of the stories share similar themes, and most of the protagonists are Black teenage girls or young women, Packer never repeats herself. Each story is a unique gem.
This young up-and-comer has received loud and generous praise from sources as distinguished as the New York Times Book Review, Harper's and John Updike. The hype, in my opinion, is justified. ZZ Packer has a long and brilliant literary career ahead of her. Pick up a copy of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, and you'll see what I mean.
Packer will be at Bookworks on Thursday, Feb. 5, to promote her book. I'm honored to say that following her reading I'll be engaging her in a conversation about her stories and future plans for global literary conquest. Stop by the store at 7 p.m. If you're nice, maybe I'll let you ask her a question or two. Call 344-8139 for more information.