(Fredonia, NY: Leapfrog Press, 2017)
The Subway Stops at Bryant Park, N. West Moss’s debut story collection, narrates a series of quiet metamorphoses, each infused with an intimate and understated yearning that leaves no character exempt. Each story, set in or around the small, iconic Bryant Park, examines individual lives that fuel the park’s human bustle.
“Omeer’s Mangoes,” the first of eleven stories, features an Iranian-born protagonist who, despite his high hopes for a prestigious career in the United States, finds himself contented to work as a doorman in a luxury building facing Bryant Park. Through lavish descriptions in letters home, Omeer lies to his father about his life in the United States, but he realizes that his own true ambitions are actually quite modest. He takes pride in being a doorman. As Omeer stands looking out over the park, he understands the renovations underway there as symbolic of the positive transformations in his own life:
The park became a testament to progress, to how things got steadily better over time, like the opposite of entropy, where he had read that things naturally fall apart. It made Omeer tremendously hopeful, about the park, about his life.
Though in many ways this story is about self-fulfillment, independence, and the optimism of those who come to the United States in search of a better life, it is also a story undergirded by yearning, loneliness, and the human frailty that informs every narrative in this collection. As Omeer ages, his disconnect from others, especially his wife and son, becomes increasingly pronounced. Strangely and compellingly, though, the mounting sadness cannot extinguish the resilience at Omeer’s core.
Each story in this collection shines an unrelenting light into the darkest corners of its characters’ lives. “Spring Peepers,” divided into Part I and Part II, juxtaposes the main character’s narrative at ages 19 and 50, respectively. The unnamed narrator’s young self, bedeviled and flattered by Bobby, one of the regulars at the bar where she works, agrees to a date. The two end up having sex. Drunk and sloppy, Bobby turns repulsive. The evening ends badly, and the next day, when Bobby returns to the bar, she must face the choice of humiliating the man in front of her co-workers or saving his pride. She chooses the latter. Feigning interest in his advances, she keeps his secret safe, an act of decency replicated almost three decades later when she goes to visit a friend of her late father’s. The old man, having drunk too much over dinner, pees on himself. Without any awareness of the urine spot “the size of a dinner plate,” he accompanies the narrator to her room and bids her goodnight. She will not shame him by mentioning the wet spot on his pants, but nor will she stay to witness his decline. When he closes the door to his room, she leaves the house and gets in her car, letting it roll quietly down the driveway. Once again she escapes, but this time it hits her that she cannot forever evade the inevitable: “Her heart was pounding. He would be dead soon, just as her father was now. He was already dying, she realized, fleeing in slow motion down the hill. Everyone was already dying.”
The book’s thematic concerns with the connection between physical disintegration of the body and the dissolution of emotional bonds reverberate most keenly in “Lucky Cat,” a story about Suzy, a young waitress in a chic downtown restaurant. Suzy immediately falls for Tommy, a bad-boy chef who sleeps with her, but that’s beside the point. Over daily cigarette breaks in the restaurant’s basement, the two of them slowly develop an unexpected and unstated bond that transcends the physical. During one particular cigarette break, as Suzy and Tommy contend with their intensifying and unstated feelings for each other, an enormous rat scampers by. The couple keeps the creature a secret from the rest of the wait-staff, deciding to tackle the problem themselves by adopting a big tomcat they playfully name “Killer.” Not a week later, poor Killer limps into the light, his leg ripped off at the haunch. No one but Suzy and Tommy ever see the rat, a creature that looms as threatening, terrifying, and destructive as the suppressed love between them.
Moss’s unerring ear allows her to tackle big thematic questions while never breaking away from her characters’ voices. When a near-homeless bag-lady enters a fancy Bryant Park bar in search of the “Dubonnet” she used to drink with her late-husband, she ends up having to settle for a Merlot:
He put an enormous wine glass in front me with what looked like a tiny little bit of wine in the bottom, but it must have been an optical illusion, because when I finished it and paid (twelve dollars, by the way), I felt just right, light-headed, fuzzy, like I was wrapped up in a down comforter and nothing could touch me.
The real illusion, Moss reveals, is any sense of invulnerability and its accompanying belief that we can avoid the daily, terrifying task of facing our own decline.
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Martha Witt’s novel, Broken As Things Are, was published by Holt (2004) and Picador (2005). Other published works include translations of Luigi Pirandello’s plays: Six Characters in Search of an Author and The License (Italica Press, 2014), as well as Henry IV (Italica Press, 2016). Her short fiction and fiction translations have appeared in several anthologies as well as national literary journals. She is currently an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at William Paterson University.