Sportin’ Jack surprised me, I guess because I was expecting something less ambitious in such a tightly restricted form. A hundred hundred-worders? That seemed like a heavy handicap, chess with only the king, queen, and pawns at the writer’s disposal. But as I read, I began to think that pointillism might be a more accurate comparison. Strohm manages to produce a rich texture, and even structure, by juxtaposing particles.
The tales offer something like a buried narrative—surprisingly grim, though. The early “At the Clinic” should have prepared me for the growing power of “timor mortis” under these shrewdly observed vignettes. Still, the pervasive competitiveness behind most of the relentless “encounters” (in both senses) is funny, and the exigent verbal economy of the form sharpens the wit.
Strohm has mastered the art of the memorable one-liner: “What price victory, Dyan said”; “the pioneering slow-cooked turkey”; “I’m the only grandparent I know who curates his refrigerator postings”; “All I know, she said, is it was signed, ‘Thanks from a Grateful Housewife.'” I read such examples with pure delight, but also with interest when I noticed that the satiric target was as often as not the memoirist, the guy supposedly in control. I began to understand that allowing oneself to be the loser in such games while handing the victory to a series of articulate women was shrewd 2lst century gender politics.
What a surprise, then, to realize that these accomplished five-finger exercises, which could have gone on to number 100 without changing tone, were heading in a different direction. These verbal contests across the borders of age, class, gender, professional standing, and levels of urbanity gradually give way to the sense that both winners and losers face the same prospects in the end. It becomes clear that the triumphant escape from the farm, Western Springs, even Chicago, that led through “Amerst,” Berkeley, Bloomington, Oxford, and New York without ever offering a reliable and safe sense of home should circle back to its starting point through three generations and even to the lost ancestral soil, the great-grandfather’s broken jar.
The center of gravity shifts to the ex-rube’s beginnings in the dictionaryless parents, the grandfather’s starched KKK sheet. The puritanical mother and distant father, the sister and niece who arrived at the destination much earlier, come to seem “precocious” and foundational in a way the later players in this game—friends, lovers, exes, colleagues and rivals—no longer do. And a song from the 50’s Hit Parade turns out to be a disturbing revelation. These aren’t tender memories, most of them, and with one or two exceptions they avoid the lachrymose. But they broaden the canvas and lay out the whole design.
All this in 10,000 words? Very unlikely. But I think Strohm manages it and hope other readers will see the richness of this guarded, laconic jigsaw puzzle of memory.
For more on Paul Strohm’s 100-word stories, see Memoir as Collage: The Morphing, Absurd Self and Three Stories from Sportin’ Jack: The Divorce Years.