Satirical stories cut close to the bone

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Fans of the short story form — those who devour Lorrie Moore, Ann Beattie, John Cheever and Alice Munro’s work — will delight in the discovery of a newcomer to the genre. Sara Lippmann’s debut short story collection is misanthropic realism at its finest.

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Fans of the short story form — those who devour Lorrie Moore, Ann Beattie, John Cheever and Alice Munro’s work — will delight in the discovery of a newcomer to the genre. Sara Lippmann’s debut short story collection is misanthropic realism at its finest.

JERKS is a satirical meditation on sex, love, belonging and the human condition. The characters are believable and their untidy circumstances all too real. Lippmann, an accomplished storyteller, is fearless and doesn’t veer away from uncomfortable topics or unlikable characters. She steers right into the metaphorical ditch; readers can join in as Lippmannn wraps her characters around the nearest allegorical telephone pole.

If your night table is an avenue for escapism, JERKS is not for you. If you post “Be Kind” memes on Facebook, give JERKS a pass. Instead, reach for a cozy mystery set in an English village or take to your armchair with a stack of musty, cottage-aged National Geographics.

There’s absolutely no compassion nor redemption to be found on these pages. No person ahead of you at the drive-thru to pay for your cheap Robusta blend and stale chocolate chip cookie. Lippmann’s characters are more likely to spit in that coffee than pay for it. But this is how the stories pass the sniff test: they’re vengeful, selfish and vain. Lippmann’s characters navigate frailty, failure and disappointment — with mixed results.

Character-driven social realism, like the nightly news, is the domain of the brave. This intense collection is best read one story at a time, then slowly digested at the beach, in the sun. Then wash off the infidelity in Lake Winnipeg before towelling off and breaking out the cherry Popsicles.

Stand-out stories such as A Beastly Thing bring together playdate parents for an unplanned cottage assignation, kids in tow, without their spouses. Sounds like a typical tryst, except the woman is still breastfeeding and her paramour is an older man with a paunch. And yet it’s an exceptionally taut tale of eroticism, as if seductive novelist Erica Jong had penned What to Expect When You’re Expecting.

In the title story, Jerks, Christmas is warily unpacked like an old box of ornaments. Brian, the father, is on a tiresome self-reliance kick, just like half of Brooklyn. His unwitting gift recipients will receive homemade beef jerky this year as their thrifty holiday offering. “At breakfast, Christmas music plays on repeat. It plays on every station,” Lippmannn writes. “Brian comes through the kitchen, humming Do You Hear What I Hear? It’s amazing how cheerful he can be while preparing for Doomsday.”

In Let All Restless Creatures Go, young Nick, who has lost his hair to alopecia and his ambitious mother to her ascending music career, accidentally finds solace in nature when he works with a college science professor, Professor Jay. The students depart from the traditional classroom to support the teacher’s mission to preserve endangered turtles. Nick briefly discovers his purpose and a much-needed sense of belonging. The teacher’s pet is timid but the mentor has sussed out a good prospect: “Don’t be ashamed,” Professor Jay said. “The perseverant are a rare and beautiful breed.”

Jessie, faced with the prospect of her parent’s looming separation, finds the summer camp experience to be an endurance test instead of a welcome respite from family dysfunction in Wolf or Deer. “Bunk 12 threw my swim towels off the line so they climbed with daddy long legs and stank of mildew. They dusted my sheets in baby powder and accused me of lice. I had Raggedy Ann sheets, which OK, fine, maybe was asking for it.” To add humiliation to her troubles, Jessie finds companionship with an older staffer, the gardener, whose real affections reside elsewhere.

The magnificent characters in JERKS remind us who we really are — not who we aspire to be. It’s the best kind of fiction: real, raw and true.

Freelance writer Patricia Dawn Robertson, who writes and gardens in Wakaw, Sask., is frequently shunned for telling the truth.

History

Updated on Monday, June 27, 2022 9:24 AM CDT: Corrects spelling of Lippmann

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