Book Review: Read by Strangers
At the 2011 Tin House Writers Workshop, Dorothy Allison delivered a talk called, “On Dialogue.” In her spirited voice, Allison asked:
Shouldn’t story be something fucking happening?
Without a doubt, in Philip Dean Walker’s second collection of short stories, Read by Strangers (Lethe Press 2018), something is indeed happening. Admittedly, I know “Phil,” personally, and have read many of the 16 stories in this collection in early draft—Phil was a year ahead of me in the MFA in Creative Writing program at American University, and it was during our first (and only) workshop together that many of the stories in Strangers were born out of prompts given to the class by the inimitable, Elise Levine. At the center of these stories are characters coming to terms with their lives, many of them unraveling, facing certain and uncertain truths about themselves—some having sinned, and some having been sinned against. But it is Walker’s incisive prose that is truly on display in this collection. His seduction is quick, from the very first line of each story he draws a knowing portrait of the rich physical and emotional landscapes populated by the multifarious characters in these stories. Walker has a good ear and a sharp eye for story, for where to find its pulse—you can bet he’s eavesdropping on conversations in coffee shops, at brunch, or in a crowded bar—and in the wide-eyed Strangers, like the most diligent of prose writers, he isn’t afraid to flirt with disaster.
The book opens with the evocative, “Unicorn,” one of the collection’s shorter stories, about a dilapidated house, an eyesore in the middle of a manicured suburban plot in Anywhere U.S.A. A group of kids, the story’s collective “we,” dares to enter the house, only to be seduced further into the body of the house by the many unaccounted-for relics that lie in its wreckage. The relics seem to tell a story about the home and its long-ago inhabitants, the Innsbruck family, and Jeanette, the child whose mysterious story is revealed through a found Polaroid—a picture of a naked body in a compromised position—that seems to haunt the abandoned house and, in the end, the group of suburban teenagers.
For the most part, the protagonists in these stories are women—strong, decisive, some of them bored, but never boring.
In “Women of a Certain Age,” an aging soap opera actress is nostalgic for a time when she was the reigning queen of daytime television, and on the call list of every major director in Hollywood:
If she could just have one more epic storyline…
Something grand, of course, something that could reinstall her as the award-winning “real actress” she once was, knows she still is. This longing is true for many of the characters in Strangers—they long, they lust, and they remember what it was like when things were a certain way, now a memory. But I wouldn’t say that the characters in Strangers wallow in the past, looking back as if to suggest regret. No, these characters do not regret much, if anything at all.
In “Habitat,” a group of long-time, now long-distance friends gossip over email about Jill, a friend whose impulsive nature finds her in a continuous series of sticky situations—with men, with jobs, with Jill, mostly—that is narrated by the group through the story’s animated dialogue. Jill, the group says, “panic-leaves”:
Lucy had coined the term panic-leave based on the various times that Jill would pack up and bolt practically overnight—breaking leases, leaving behind furniture, changing addresses like regular people change their sheets.
But when something unforeseen happens, and Jill really needs the help and support of her friends, the group retreats: “Everyone seems to be so busy these days,” the story ends. And the reader doesn’t have to wonder what happens next: the gossiping about Jill, of course, continues. And if not about Jill, the group will surely find someone else to target. No, regret and remission do not describe these characters. But this is also what makes Walker a dutiful storyteller, to return to Allison’s quip about story’s need for action: these stories resist reconciliation for rebellion.
It is in “Verisimilitude,” the penultimate story in Strangers, that Walker’s writing is at its most athletic. Deirdre is a newly-minted professor of creative writing at Middlebury College, in Vermont, and is experiencing a dreadful, if not fatal, case of writer’s block: “It wasn’t just writer’s block; it was writer’s paralysis.” Among other things, Deirdre is sleeping with the department chair whose wife Nan is sick with breast cancer. But what is really at the heart of Deirdre’s undiagnosed problem, is imposter syndrome—the worrisome idea that you’re only as good as your first idea and that you’ll never be able to produce anything as good again. Deirdre worries that Deirdre might be a fraud, and she is, later on poaching a story idea from a student that she wields as her own at the annual faculty reading. But it is Nan, the story’s conscience, who sees through to the heart of the criminally deadpan Deirdre and calls her out on her cheating ways during an awkward run-in outside of a local sandwich shop just days after the reading. “There was nothing authentic about that story you read the other day,” Nan tells Deirdre. “It was impractical. And what’s worse, it was boring. You’ve committed the worst sin a writer can commit: you’ve bored your reader.”
And what is the number one job of the writer? To never bore the reader. Story should be something fucking happening. And in Philip Dean Walker’s Read by Strangers, you can expect that there are things happening—you can expect storytelling at its very best.
Philip Dean Walker holds a B.A. in American Literature from Middlebury College and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing (Fiction) from American University. His debut collection of short stories, At Danceteria and Other Stories, was published by Squares & Rebels in November 2016 (a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2017). His second collection of stories, Read by Strangers, was published by Lethe Press in April 2018. He is from Great Falls, Virginia and currently lives in Washington, D.C.
K. Tyler Christensen is a PhD student in American Literature & Culture at The George Washington University (GWU), and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from American University (AU). His work has appeared in Big Lucks, The Rumpus, and The Huffington Post.
Author Image: Robert Walker