With twenty stories spanning from the late 1970s to today, Lynn Levin’s House Parties, her debut short story collection, is a tour de force, combining her poetic talent for precise language and imagery with her capacity to create a wide range of imperfect, enthralling characters. There are too few recent story collections today with House Parties’ ambition to jump between generations, cities, point-of-views, character occupations, and narrative pacing styles. Lynn’s stories are heavy with people from all walks of life and rich with entertaining and realistic dialogue. While the most memorable stories are those that capture the vicissitudes of family life, other stories verve into the slightly surreal and employ fabulist tones. Many of the titles themselves – “The Lady with a Hundred Pockets,” “The Other Henry Harris,” “The French Milliner’s Model” – feel plucked from the land of fairy stories and ballads, although their content speaks very much to our present times.
Throughout all the stories, Lynn has the enviable ability to introduce us to her characters’ status quo, telling us exactly what we need to know to care for and root for them. For example, in “The Path to Halfway Falls,” she writes of her protagonist:
“Over the past year, twenty-eight-year-old Dean, a wallpaper hanger, had known much of duty and little of freedom and joy. He lived with his mother, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, and he was her main caregiver.”
In the same, brisk manner, she allows us to witness her characters make sense of other characters, too. In those moments, we are one in judgment with the character, realizing our own suspicions and thoughts confirmed. For instance, in “The Lady with a Hundred Pockets,” Doris has brought Mikey, a man she met on a 50+ dating site, to a benefit carnival for a neighbor of hers who has severely injured himself after falling off a ladder. Slowly, we realize Mickey is not quite the catch Doris/we hoped for; he’s cheap, unsympathetic, and a spoil-sport. Near the end, while Mickey takes a pitch at the dunk tank, Levin writes:
“Everyone stepped back as Mickey wound up for the pitch. Doris knew his skill, but the others did not. They only saw his aggression, the hard set of his mouth, and Doris standing by with a crooked smile. She knew that in the privacy of a home, which they would never ever share, he would always be right, even if he were not right. She knew that type. The type that called disagreement starting a fight.”
One of the strongest stories, “The Husband and the Gypsy,” comes second in the collection. It begins with the protagonist stating that he is traveling to Philadelphia to move his aging parents into a retirement community. Suddenly, we’re told, “Scanning the radio stations, I chanced upon a broadcast of Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor. The violinist was in the final movement, the Chaconne, a piece that still makes me quiver with an old and disturbing memory.” Then, the protagonist takes us back to 1979, a time when he was only fourteen, and his mother was working as a social worker for Hatikvah House, a refugee resettlement agency for Soviet Jews in Northeast Philadelphia, and his father was a well-known concert violinist. Not only does the story instantiate the way music – like smell – can transport us back in time, but also it throws light on the past of a city that is always changing and transforming as new people arrive, try to follow their dreams, and grow older, and, perhaps, wiser in the process.
Other stories, like “Tell Us About Your Experience” and “Student Rebellion,” have a satirical strain with hallucinogenic pacing. While the former feels like the great-great-great grandchild of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, the latter could slide easily alongside Zadie Smith’s “Now More Than Ever.” Like the Smith story, “Student Rebellion” plays in the taboo sandbox of cancel culture, presentism, and what historian of political thought Anton Jäger calls our “hyperpolitical moment.” And like Smith’s protagonist, Levin’s protagonist also ends on a wistful note that things will somehow change: “Gentle disagreement. That would be nice, but was the world ready for it?”
Another hit is “Little Secrets,” about a poet-comp professor who confronts a famous poet (and her former mentor and lover) who tossed her aside. Not only does this story have a fantastic opening that performs wonders with syntax and repetition, but it manages to feel part of the #metoo era without any of the didacticism and simplicity you find in some other stories of its ilk. The teacher-student relationship is a favorite of writers. Lorrie Moore has a great one, as does Tessa Hadley. “Little Secrets” is a friend of those stories, certainly.
All and all, House Parties is not to be missed. It’s not often you read a story about three millennial guys hiking, followed by a story of Jewish Americans in the latter second half of the 20th Century. On top of the delicious storytelling, there’s the line of descriptions that stick with you. Levin knows how to embody a character, physically and mentally, on the page. Savor, say, this line from “The Lady with a Hundred Pockets”:
“She wore her hair in a massive braid, thick as a bicycle tire, that she fixed in a circle on top of her head like an Italian Easter bread, except there was no pink or blue dyed egg in it.”