My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It’s rare to find a literary collection of short stories that’s so darn readable and fun. Such is the case with Shellie Zacharia’s Now Playing, her debut fiction collection. Inside you’ll find stories about a kid cutting off her nose, a yard sale gone wrong, a lonely 6th grade teacher who steals a cardboard cutout of a lead singer from a music store, continuing ed sewing classes taught by a 4th grade loser, experimental disco theater,a shoplifting four-year-old, and more. Sure these stories are funny, but they are also poignant and real. Zacharia’s settings include a mix of urban and suburban: bowling alleys, community ed classrooms, art galleries, sheets, playgrounds, and Bed Bath and Beyond.
These characters yearn to live out loud and take chances in the middle of their working lives. They could be your sister, your next door neighbor or maybe yourself. Most of Zacharia’s characters are women in their mid-thirties who have careers that they’re somewhat satisfied with, but know that they played it safe while their former classmates took greater creative risks. Perhaps without even realizing it, they are all looking outside of themselves for the answers, while what they’re missing could be unearthed if only they looked deeper. Some may not agree with her happy or satisfactory endings, but Zacharia manages in a few pages to make her characters reach some peace and decide with optimism the right course to take for them.
Zacharia allows us a peak into their daily grind right at the moment they are turning a corner. Philip Gerard, author of Writing Creative Nonfiction is fond of saying, “Everything was fine until you showed up,” to referring to storytelling. The “you” refers to the catalyst, which can be a person or thing that drives the story to inspire the main character get up off of the couch and do something. Once her characters get going they don’t stop.
Many times this “you” is the past. How many times have you wondered what would happen if you ran into an old school chum and you hadn’t been exactly nice to them? Could you write an honest, yet scathing complaint letter like Lucy does in “Luckily, Lucy Sims Has No Stamps.” Or what would you do if you had to review an ex-boyfriend’s play? What kind of meeting will it be? Zacharia explores this exact thread in a few of her stories starting with the titular “Now Playing.”
In this story, the main character, a writer, has been assigned to write a review her old boyfriend’s experimental play for the independent paper she works for. The fun ensues when she’s late because she let a neighbor badly cut her bangs and because of that she didn’t get her 3-D glasses and playbill, which are both necessary since this is an experimental play. As the show continues, our character can’t figure it out and is wondering what she’s going to write about it her review. She finally decides what to do without being unethical.
One of my favorites was “Cardboard Ben” when Nikki, a schoolteacher steals a cardboard cutout of her old high school classmate, Ben Stevens, who is now a famous singer and guitarist. The funny thing is that store clerk lets her steal Ben because he’s “mainstream” and they get new cardboard music stars in all of the time. She keeps CB (Cardboard Ben) in her living room, talks to him, and wants him to become her muse, but she soon sees that it’s bordering on obsession when she mentions him frequently during class. A telling line is when Nikki’s friend, Vivian warns her, “It would be better if you said you were making out with Cardboard Ben. Don’t trade love for crafts. That’s what my grandmother did.” By the end, Nikki does the right thing.
A few of the stories have interconnected characters and Zacharia is very clever in making their plot lines overlap without forcing them to. I would have wanted to see more interconnected stories since she had started down that path and then stopped. Descriptive titles, dialogue, and quick brush strokes that reveal the core of a character are three of Zacharia’s main strengths. As a reader, you remember her details about her characters because they are quirky, extreme and make total sense because people are unpredictable and do funny things all of the time. When it comes to her titles, she loads up on description, like a poet would, so that she doesn’t need to be so expository within her narrative. This way the reader knows exactly what to expect and they can get comfortable fast. These are the opening lines in “After Carlos the Continuity Expert Quit the Movie and Headed to Costa Rica’: which we know right away is a description of Carlos.
He said it had to do with birds. They had names, beautiful names, and he’d call them out like he was reciting prayer: scarlet-thighed dacnis, chestnut-headed oropendola. The women on the set found it erotic, the way he said these names, but one day he was saying thrush-like schiffornis and then he was gone. He left a message on the director’s answering machine. She showed up for the filming of the diner scene for Emilio’s Girls and scowled a lot and drank enough coffee that her hands shook. Someone gave her a muscle relaxer, which helped.
Zacharia also has an uncanny ability to express what we are all thinking, but seldom say. In “Making the Bed,” Deborah ponders bedding and marriage:
So maybe they are not the finest sheets, but they are worn and washed and stained in the right way, darker where our bodies lie night after night, and someone might say those are love spots and I’d say they were right.
From her style and expertise with dialogue, Zacharia is one of those writers who is constantly observing human behavior while striving to write stories that reveal great connections and deeper truths. She does so remarkably in this collection without weighing down her narratives on a quest to be “literary” because her stories are like songs which all contain a melody, hook and bridge that make you want to listen to them over and over again.