I put aside Garth Risk Hallberg’s stunning behemoth City On Fire to read Karen E. Bender’s story collection, Refund. City On Fire is engrossing, no doubt there, definitely a good novel to sink into, but I just wanted to step aside for a moment – reading Hallberg’s 900+ pages is a huge investment in reading time, and these 13 collected stories provided the perfect, temporary wayside.
They are tied together by a theme of money — how it rules and changes American lives and the emotional damage and exhaustion that creates. The characters are financially trapped by their jobs, some needing second and third jobs, some getting fired and struggling to make ends meet, some unable to get off the sofa to do anything but go to the job. They are blind to the happiness and security present in togetherness with others, which is the way Bender infuses the stories with hope – because the solution is right there – available — for most of the characters.
These characters include a life-long swindler on an Alaskan cruise, the executive producer of a hit TV game show called “Anything For Money,” a loan officer, an appliance doctor, a political candidate, artists and more. They are funny, familiar, heartbreaking and relatable. In the title story, probably my favorite, a woman astronomically increases the amount a couple owes her as a refund for subletting their apartment in New York when the 9-11 terrorist attack happens. It’s an unforgettable story about money’s inability to replace that aforementioned togetherness.
The author uses a dramatic event to ignite her plots, such as a school shooting that opens “The Sea Turtle Hospital.” The story is about the assistant kindergarten teacher, alone after moving to North Carolina with her boyfriend and then breaking up with him – and about her student, Keisha. No one comes for either of them after the shooting, so the teacher takes Keisha to the sea turtle hospital by the ocean. There they meet the blind turtle Hugh, bumping into the walls of his tank with no way out. The teacher and Keisha imagine what it would be like if Hugh regained his sight, and when they do that, it’s impossible not to think of a metaphor for everyone who is burdened by money’s influence regaining sight of life’s purpose and meaning:
“Maybe, I had said, we would all gather at the shore and watch him swim out, and he would take in the sea with his perfect new vision, he would remember how to swim, and he would feel the buoyancy of the waves under his fins as he floated into the deep blue water.”
One day, I was stopped at a forever red stoplight. I picked Refund up off the passenger seat and began reading. I completely let go of my surroundings, violating my rule for stoplight reading that requires me to peripherally be aware of the red brake lights of the car in front of me in order to know when to put the book down. I shouldn’t read at stoplights, I suppose, and this book is a case in point: It grabbed and dragged me into the story so fast I fell out of my present reality, woken by the driver behind me firmly pressing the horn. Huh? What?
The title of this post is a tip of the hat to James Carville and the 1992 U.S. presidential campaign.