By GEOFFREY BECKER
University of Georgia Press, 2009
173 pages; Paperback
Reviewed by Chris Mackowski
Geoffrey Becker’s short stories in Black Elvis may leave the reader scratching his or her head—but that’s just the point. Becker’s characters are frequently left scratching their heads, too.
Winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, Black Elvis collects a dozen of Becker’s stories into a collection that could best be described as a handbook for people trying to find themselves. It’s no “How-To” guide, though; consider it more of a “misery loves company” companion because Becker’s characters find themselves as lost at the end of each story as they were at the beginning.
In the title story, for instance, a blues guitarist who goes by the stage name “Black Elvis” suddenly finds himself supplanted at the local club’s open mic night. Already strumming his way through an ungrounded existence, the guitarist suddenly wonders what the future holds for him. “Have I gotten it wrong all this time?” he asks the man who replaced him. “Should I be doing something else?”
The book is filled with musicians and artists, discontents all. The musicians don’t quite have perfect rhythm, and the artists must paint in other people’s styles. In “The Naked Man,” the artist can’t bring herself to part with her paintings and so confounds her own ability to make a living doing what she loves to do.
Many of Becker’s protagonists are traveling. Some are on vacation, some are on business trips, some are escaping from the real world, and some are wandering across Europe, guitar cases in hand. All seem to be on uninspired quests of their own, trying to find their places in the world or their reasons for being.
Even Lenny, the protagonist in “Iowa Winter,” is displaced from his own home because of his drinking. He’s a solid guy, still married, still stopping by to see his wife who still lives in their old house. She makes him dinner that he can take home with him, and he fixes things around the old homestead. “I had drunk myself out of this marriage ten years ago, but it didn’t mean we weren’t in love,” he says.
The characters inevitably come to minor epiphanies about themselves, but they never find The Big Thing missing from their lives. Some of them don’t even know what Big Thing they’re looking to find. They just have a general uneasiness that all is not right in their lives, a vague forlornness that nips at their hearts. U2 could be standing in the background throughout, playing “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
That feeling of incompleteness is best exemplified in the way Becker’s stories end—usually in an awkward spot of some sort, in the middle of an action that doesn’t really relate to the main plot. In “Santorini,” for instance, the protagonist finds herself overrun by feral cats after she makes the mistake of feeding one on the balcony of her Greek villa. In “Man Under,” the protagonist’s musings on a subway car are interrupted when the subway accidentally hits someone. Such actions have nothing to do with the actual story, which can leave a reader wondering what the point might be.
Still, the stories are poignant and humorous, infused with an undercurrent of melancholy. They are also imminently relatable. Life seldom has neat, tidy endings, and neither do Becker’s stories. Instead, like his own characters, Becker leaves his readers scratching their heads—and with plenty to consider.