November 2010

Arianna Stern

fiction

Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self: Stories by Danielle Evans

Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, Danielle Evans’s debut collection of short stories, begins with “Virgins,” which was originally printed in The Paris Review and appeared in The Best American Short Stories 2008. The story revolves around the friendship between two working-class black girls, whose love and support for one another cannot counteract the cynical and aggressive form of sexuality that’s foisted upon them. The narrator's best friend tries to meet adult men, believing they'll be more considerate partners than fellow teenagers. Only the narrator sees the hollowness of that hope, and neither the narrator nor her friend predict the danger in which they put themselves. Like most of the other narrators in Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, the narrator in “Virgins” is smart and sympathetic, a capable person in a situation that she can mostly understand, but can’t control.

Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self is worth reading for its two best stories alone -- “Virgins” and “Wherever You Go, There You Are.” The rest of the book explores the same themes of sexuality, race, and flawed love, but with mixed results. Evans’s characters often make sudden realizations and rash decisions within a few paragraphs of the stories’ endings. The consistency of the story structure is self-consciously fiction-y and distracting.

Still, Evans writes about love in a way that’s devastating and lucid. In “Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s Nowhere to Go,” a former army man falsely claims that he’s a war hero so that his ex-girlfriend’s daughter can win a big contest. Despite the contrived plot, the protagonist’s flailing and desperation feel very real. “Harvest” features crackling dialogue from underappreciated, smart women of color (another running theme in the book). In “Harvest,” college-aged white women donate their eggs for money, but their darker-skinned counterparts are told that they’re undesirable donors. “Let me go in there and sign Dulce Maria Gutierrez Hernandez on the dotted line and see how fast they throw me out the office,” one character says, and it’s deeply sad in a subtle way.

Other times, Evans takes a more blunt approach. In “Robert E. Lee Is Dead,” two teenage girls hop a fence on the way home from school and shoplift slushies from a convenience store. It feels like a tired allusion to teenage impulsiveness, rather than an accurate description. The story revolves around a gifted high school senior who feels pigeonholed both by her white, privileged classmates as well as her black and Latino friends. She reacts to her frustration with sweeping, symbolic acts of vandalism that would make the news in real life. In the story, they just show her frustration in a crude and unrealistic way.

Still, Evans’s descriptions of pain and yearning are always true, sometimes painfully so. In “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” the narrator says, “I’d always wanted to get married in Vegas, because marriage was just a big flashy spectacle to cover up the tacky tragedy of human loneliness, and why would you get married anywhere you could forget that?” In the story, the protagonist has a hot-and-cold relationship with a male friend who’s about to be married. Both characters need a perfect, brilliant kind of love in order to be happy and whole, but are too imperfect to send or receive it.

Even when her characters are superficially unlikable, Evans is humane. She writes with wisdom and compassion, giving her characters greater clarity of thought by the end of their stories. Despite the fact that they hurt other people, you root for the characters. They are imperfect people looking for pure love, compassion, and understanding.

Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self: Stories by Danielle Evans
Riverhead
ISBN: 1594487693
240 Pages