Toni Graham's The Daiquiri Girls
This loosely connected collection of short stories, Toni Graham's first book, won the Associated Writing Program's 1997 Award in Short Fiction. And, I think, it probably deserved to. Reading the first 15 or 20 pages, I was drawn to the characters by Graham's straightforward and graceful prose. I found myself re-reading some sentences, enjoying the way they sounded when spoken out loud, the way the words were linked together. She's a wonderful writer. Her voice is like expensive whiskey poured over cracking ice.
After reading the first couple of stories, though, I started to wonder if there wasn't going to be something more. Something different. Each of the women in these stories have the same problems, the same fears and worries, the same relationships. Graham is very good indeed at writing about them: the problem is that after the fourth or fifth story, I just didn't care anymore. I was sick of them already. Someone once said that the only thing wrong with John Updike was that he didn't go to Vietnam—meaning that his writings focused on the mundane and everyday occurrences rather than truly important events. I don't buy into that. I don't think it's necessary to go to war in order to write, and I think that everyday events can often be the most important and compelling. I just wish that Graham had chosen to vary her subject matter somewhat. A little unfocused, middle-aged angst goes a long way.
If you came to this book and read only three stories—say, "Cinema Verite," "Lying in Bed," and "My Higher Power"—and then closed the covers and walked away, you'd be walking away with the best of it. In fact, do that. Read just those three, and read them in that order, and you'll have a three-act drama of a woman falling apart, losing her man, losing her looks, losing herself. There is no redemption—or very little. There's no false hope. There's only the telephone, and the bottle of gin, and days where you start off well enough, but end up somehow with your makeup smeared and your mouth sticky and sobbing in the arms of someone you don't even particularly like, knowing that something somewhere has gone terribly wrong.
The first two stories in The Daiquiri Girls deal with Jane, whose lover, Lars, killed himself a year ago while driving drunk. His family blames Jane. She blames herself. Then there's Magda, who's just had her uterus removed and suffers from migraine. Goes to Las Vegas with a girlfriend, catches a Wayne Newton show, and almost, but not quite, lets herself get picked up by a handsome, funny, sexy stranger in a bar at the mall. The next stories are about Zoe, pretty, self-centered Zoe whose husband has left her for Another Woman, and decides that getting her face chemically peeled will make everything better. She's seeing Roger, a Younger Guy, and Guy, who's also Younger, but they aren't really any good for her. Roger puts in earplugs when they finish making love so he doesn't have to listen to Zoe talking. (Actually, I don't blame him all that much.) Finally, there's Victoria, who is the focus of almost half the stories in the book. She's been married—twice, I think. There was Peter, who she cheated on with David, who she later married, who cheated on her, so she cheated on him, with Phillip, who is Jewish and a Magician and may even be Suicidal but is definitely very Dramatic and spends some time in Jail.
What the characters have in common is that they are all lonely, edgy, aging-but-still-attractive, self-centered, unfulfilled, disappointed and drunk. Their men have all left them, or they've left their men. Their children are grown, or gone, or never happened in the first place. Their main occupations seem to be avoiding work, drinking heavily, and feeling sorry for themselves. These are all the same woman, even if their names and hairstyles are different. Bridget Jones, but older and more depressed.
Oh, and at some point, each of the women drinks a daiquiri. Just one. Hence the title.
Graham's prose is generally wonderful, but there are places where it falls apart, times when she tends to stretch believability too far. For example, there's one passage where Jane overhears Lars checking his messages and realizes that he is almost certainly cheating on her, and, more importantly, that he is now calmly lying to her about it:
She had felt herself fly apart, but not in any herky-jerky disjointed way. She had felt like a ball of rubber bands that snapped but then reverberated, oscillating [Okay, nice so far, but this is where I start to lose it—L.H.] and she had just let her arms and legs and neck go limp like strands of India rubber, and felt her eyelids rest at half-mast, so that she saw nothing except the lavender tissue paper out of the corner of an eye. She didn't even remember getting under the bed.
Yes, under the bed. Then Lars pulls her out by one ankle as you would a stubborn cat.
A little bit later, she reveals that she and Lars used to spend 18 hours in bed together, making love continuously. I have a problem with that, too. I mean, 18 hours. There is nothing at all in the whole wide world that I want to do for 18 hours straight. Nothing. And please don't send me any email on this subject, whatever your feelings and personal experiences may be. I don't want to know about it.
But there are also wonderful, perfect, don't-change-a-word passages in Graham's book. When Zoe considers her options after ramming into a lime-green Continental in her parking garage, and decides she can't possibly pay for the body work, and tries to look confident and non-sneaky as she sneaks away from the scene:
She had a quick, crazy thought that maybe she would fall in love with the policeman who came to arrest her. Her mother had always told her to just approach any policeman if she were ever lost or in trouble. Well, she was both.
That pretty much says it, right there.
For her next book, I hope that Graham will expand her scope a little. Diversify. Be brave and daring and tackle some new issues. I'll be waiting for it. Even in this book, there are plenty of moments where she shows she can write about something more interesting, something filled with joy and excitement and life. The final, long paragraph in "Endings" is a work of art. I won't give any of it to you here, it's too long to reproduce entirely and too perfect to cut. But I will tell you that it's a kaleidoscope of whirling bright neon and chaos, bliss and tragedy, and dreams that are nonetheless beautiful for all they don't come true.
I want some more of that, please.