Review by Tessa Mellas (excerpt)
Meg Pokrass’s collection Damn Sure Right packs in a whopping eighty-eight stories. Short-shorts. Flash fiction. Whatever you call them, Meg Pokrass is their queen. She’s made a career out of flash fiction. She teaches flash fiction workshops nationally and has published over a hundred pieces in journals. In a market that goads short story writers to crank out novels, she’s firm in her commitment to keep it tight. But while most of us literature lovers have enjoyed a brilliant short-short in our time, few of us have read a whole book of them or even know how.
How do you read a book of flash fiction? Do you inhale a quick story before running to catch the bus, read another later on the john, another right before bed? Do you curl up on the couch and rest the book on your knee between stories to mull over all contained in each vivid dense space? One thing is clear. A book of flash fiction cannot be read like a novel. Each story is like the richest morsel of chocolate. You can’t inhale them by the fistful. You’ve got to treat yourself to a bite here and there, take it on its own terms.
So what are flash fiction’s terms? How do flash pieces, strange critters that they are, work? Let’s take a look at Meg Pokrass’s story “Like a Family,” a miraculous two-page piece that is gorgeous and so affecting it hurts. Here’s the first paragraph:
The city is always moving its pinkie to tell me it’s alive. One day it smells like steaming artichokes—another day, lapsang souchong tea. My friends, other secretaries, gather on the sunny bench like a bouquet. From a block away it looks as if they are complaining, bending backwards and yawning. He never liked them, or even wanted to know them, but now that he’s not around, they’re what I have.
In that first sentence, Pokrass goes straight to the gut and takes you to your knees. A grand sprawling thing like a city with a soul so banged and bruised it’s wiggling its smallest appendage to alert a single solitary soul that it, the city, isn’t dead—that’s some sentence. She follows the emotive with concrete details of such fierce specificity you can’t help but see and smell the world of this city, whichever city it might be. Pokrass throws in an imagistic simile, then ends the first paragraph with a mysterious sentence, whose unspecified pronoun doesn’t stop us from understanding the whole condition of this recently dumped, sad secretary’s world.
Pokrass can nail openings and precise perfect details. And she’s got that characterization thing mastered too. Take this description of that unspecified “he” that comes at the end of the first page: “Calling me is probably on his ‘to do’ list, which I imagine includes trying on new running shoes in preparation for his next marathon, meeting his training coach in her live/work space, upgrading his phone or his GPS running gizmo, catching up with his ex-wife over Dragonwell tea. Taking the kids for the weekend, so she can play.” Not only can I immediately imagine this very real ex-lover and his history, but I can also imagine the entirety of their relationship, and the way the stasis of his absence chafes the narrator’s skin.
At the end of the story, when this ex-lover has declared that he is moving to London, Pokrass closes things up by finding this perfect ordering of words: “I imagine the glow of his cigarette littering London.” Another sentence that performs so much magic, you wonder why anyone could want or need more than two pages to get their narrative fix for the week.
This theme of complicated doomed relationships comes up again as do other themes that make the book feel cohesive in its scope. Pokrass gives us glimpses of lonely teenagers exploring blurred sexualities. She pays homage to single mothers starting new lives with their kids. Her worlds often include pets, divorced parents, abuse. It’s not a pretty place except for the prose. But that mix of lovely sentences and dysfunction in such a tight space is what makes it intense.
Damn Sure Right is like a good album that I might never listen to in whole again but whose best songs I will replay over and over. I will return to Meg Pokrass’s greatest hits (“Pounds Across America,” “Jezus in the Backseat,” “California Fruit,” “Surrogate,” “Them,” “It’s No Wonder,” “Vegan,” “In This Light,” “Irina’s Hair Shop,” “Foreign Accent Syndrome”) for quick flashes of concrete and carefully wrought universes packed into so few pages and into so few minutes of my day. And I thank Meg Pokrass heartily for that.