June 2008

Christopher Urban

fiction

Farewell Navigator by Leni Zumas

“Wide lawns and narrow minds,” Hemingway said of his Midwestern hometown. The description fits for Leni Zumas’s Farewell Navigator, a debut collection of ten stories narrated by girls and boys who know little about themselves and nothing about the world. Zumas makes sure her characters fail in the saddest and funniest ways possible. They search everywhere -- from sanatoriums to YMCA’s -- for meaning and direction in life, or even just a date would be nice.

In the titled story, a boy walks in on his blind mother getting freaky with his best friend. In “Heart Sockets,” a young woman works at a factory making heart-shaped pillows by day and nursing sick animals at night. “How He Was A Wicked Son” follows a gay teenaged-boy in a mental hospital who refuses to stop dressing in Goth, all while pining over his unrequited love—a handsome, Ivy League dropout named Julian.

Zumas’s dark humor permeates every story. The shame a young teen has for an overweight mother in “Dragons May Be The Way Forward” is sharpened by Zumas's wit:

She shoves her hairdo into my room: Shall I open a can?

It is not soup we are talking about. It is not beer or tuna. Tapioca is the canned good of choice in this house. You wouldn’t think it was a great idea to pack pudding in tin, but they do, and my mother eats a few cans a night under the pretense that I am sharing them with her. Two bowls, two spoons, one mouth.

The voices of Zumas’s characters are sad, funny, pathetic, and not much different from one another. Most of the first person protagonists go unnamed, a problem that makes distinguishing between “I” characters (not unlike an Ann Beattie story collection) inconsequential. In one story, “Handfasting,” the reader won’t discover the gender of the protagonists until page four.

In the final tale we’re introduced to a self-reflective, all-seeing gargoyle. It narrates the story from atop a Brooklyn apartment building in a neighborhood that’s forcing its residents over the age of 35 to move out. Zumas animate the gargoyle with short sentences like, “My favorite weather is cloud.” The reader will identify with the gargoyle who, like us, can only watch the injustices consuming these people’s lives. The gargoyle acts outside its own authority (much like Zumas does here) and breaks its Observation Only rule, intervening with the neighborhood feuds. The story’s happy-ever-after conclusion: a small child baking cookies with the help of an old woman, reads like an apology for the previous stories, where predicaments like Wicca weddings, attempted murders, and hand-sewn scars had no such easy ending.

Farewell Navigator by Leni Zumas
Open City Books
ISBN: 1890447498
224 Pages