Riverhead, 2003

It’s been a long time since a book inspired me to create a Spelling It Out.*

Generally speaking, it coincides with an author’s shifting onto my MRE lists (Must Read Everything).

Consider it official: Z.Z. Packer’s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere makes her a MRE author for me, and now I’ll spell out my reasons why.

P for Plausible

Every single one of her characters, whether a middle-aged nurse or a teenage runaway, feels believable for me as a reader.

Not just in a “wow, she really got into her head” way. But in a “forget they aren’t real people” way.

Part of this is because the author takes me places that I don’t often go.

And I’m not talking about setting here. Most of these stories are set in American cities which, although I haven’t visited them, feel familiar enough.

Certainly the way in which they’re described feels familiar. Even when that is more about emotion and less about structure and geography.

“The buildings breathed and exhaled possibilities; that was why a skyline like this one could stop your heart. As the bus entered the city’s center, threading its way in, the skyline seemed to whisper, You too are possible.”

A for Astute

Because beyond the skyline, it’s all about the specific ways in which characters’ experiences are shared with the reader.

Even when they are seemingly struggling to overcome a sense of distance in their own lives, Z.Z. Packer’s characters often have a raw vulnerability that, paradoxically, pulls the reader that much closer to their experience.

And that must come from years of staring and unravelling, of watching and surmising, of wondering and guessing. From astute observation.

“Before she could stop him, one finger was wriggling around inside, and by then it was too late to tell him she was having her monthly woman troubles.”

I’m not saying she actually observed this. I’m saying that Z.Z. Packer’s writing is that finger; it’s poking and wriggling in all the places that most people don’t want to reveal.

C for Complex

Several of these stories revolve (if only in a minor way) around the characters’ search for identity.

Many of them are incorporating their racial identity into their ever-broadening sense-of-self.

In the hands of some artists, this can be a very black-and-white issue. But in the hands of Z.Z. Packer, it’s about all the shades in between.

It’s about contradictions; it’s about maybe thinking, just for a moment, that you actually really, truly, completely understand something. Only to find yourself heading for a heavy edit.

“’No,’ I said, and suddenly knew there was something mean in the world that I could not stop.”

Like the main character in the title story, “Brownies”, discovers: what you resist is not necessarily what you mean to resist, and the line between resisting injustice and perpetrating injustice is alarmingly narrow.

(I read this story when it was published many years ago in “The Atlantic” and i liked it well enough to register the author’s name, but I didn’t find it as powerful as I do now, with another ten years of complicated living behind me.)

K for Keeper

One of the reasons that I know this is a keeper? The stories are satisfying at a first go but they leave me wanting to re-read anyhow.

I mean, there is a sense of resolution, and I’m not left feeling as though I missed something, but then I have an idea that makes me wonder if there wasn’t even more to see.

That’s not quite the same as missing something, right?

For instance, when I came upon the title reference, I suddenly wanted to re-read some of the earlier stories.

“I’d hooked on to that one word, pretending. Dr. Raeburn would never realize that ‘pretending’ was what had got me this far. I remember the morning of my mother’s funeral. It’s been given milk to settle my stomach; I’d pretended it was coffee. I imagined I was drinking coffee elsewhere. Some Arabic-speaking country where the thick coffee served in little cups was so strong it could keep you awake for days.”

It occurred to me that, even though the stories stood just fine on their own, without my thinking about this whole idea of “pretending”, there was something to be had from re-reading to see which other characters were thinking about drinking coffee elsewhere.

E for Even-handed

The characters in these stories are as complex as the ideas that motivate their telling.

And you are not only given permission to see them with all their flaws set out into the sun, but encouraged to embrace them all the same.

They might be bristly.

“‘Eskimos kill themselves by floating away on icebergs,’ the white girl said.
‘If you can find an iceberg anywhere near Baltimore,’ Lynnea finally said, ‘I’d be glad to strap you to it.’”

(But it’s funny, right? That’s one of my favourite moments in that story. It feels real and somehow, in the context of the scene, manages to convey a sense of being damaged and yet enduring, all at once.

Sometimes they’re outright abusive.

“I now understood what he meant, and why he did it, though I didn’t like it. When you’ve been made to feel bad for so long, you jump at the chance to do it to others.”

But they won’t be dismissed. They get a fair shake.

R for Rabid

Because I’ve lost track of the number of times, since the new year, that I’ve checked online to see if there has been an announcement about her next book since the new year.

(I started reading these stories early in January, spreading them out with a few days between, because I immediately knew that I wanted them to last.)

At some point, I know I’m going to be down on my knees, rooting through the closet, looking for my back-issue of “The New Yorker” with this story in it.

It looks like there might be a couple of other stories anthologized in various places (oh, I hope they’re new ones).

But, beyond that, I’m left eye-balling the 12-pack of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere that comes up on GoodReads. (See, other readers think it’s so amazing that they buy it by the dozen, right?! Maybe that’s just since she was named as one of The New Yorker’s 20Under40.)

Yep, I am all-afroth, waiting for her next book.

What’s the last book/story that you read that made you gush?

*See Michael Crummey’s Galore, Hiromi Goto’s Half World, and Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger