Devil’s Lake

Book Reviews

Jeff Parker: The Taste of Penny

Jeff Parker’s story collection The Taste of Penny takes its name from a moment in the title story when the protagonist, Sam, accidentally swallows the penny he’s sucking to screw up a breathalyzer test. The penny-under-the-tongue trick is a well-known urban legend, but in this story it works—Sam blows "one one-thousandth" under the legal limit. "I should have blown that breath reader off the charts," he tells his friend Jeremy. "All that tequila I put back."

Despite my better judgment, I bought it. And despite the fact that this situation sounds like something out of an amateur story about two frat boys, "The Taste of Penny" is actually a very smart piece. Parker is a writer capable of pulling off the unlikely. In fact, the difficulty in reviewing this collection is that so many of his characters (man deathly afraid of birds), story concepts (father puts son in suitcase to steal from luggage compartment), and titles ("James’s Love of Laundromats") sound, out of context, like very bad ideas. The fact that they’re not—that each story is fresh and moving—is a testament to Parker’s narrative skills. His style ranges from realism to the slightly surreal, but the prose throughout is marked by pitch-perfect dialogue, clever (but not overly so) plays-on-words, and one-of-a-kind metaphors ("Peter the Great’s collection of deformed babies, which float in jars like balls of fresh mozzarella").

Several of the stories take place in Russia (Parker directs summer literary seminars in St. Petersburg) and follow students and expatriates as they maneuver through language landmines. In "False Cognate," an American student realizes too late that his liaison has mistaken his request for a barber for the Russian word baba ("whore"). In "The Briefcase of the Pregnant Spy Lady," Hryushka, a semi-bilingual second-generation immigrant can’t bring himself to have an important conversation with his father because "instead he is thinking about some and any. He is not sure when to say Is there any problem? or Is there some problem?" The piece titled "An Evening of Jenga┬«" whimsically evokes Babel in its depiction of a Russian couple, an American man, and a Turkish earthquake survivor quibbling over misunderstandings as they construct the game’s wood blocks ("We’re trying to build this tower as high as we can," the narrator notes).

Communication isn’t much easier in the American stories. In this book, people get seriously hung up on grammar—even to the point of violence. In the title story, Sam and Jeremy own a moving business that is in fierce competition with Two Men and a Truck. After Sam puts in a phony order with their rival, the Two Men call back enraged, threatening Sam, and referring to Jeremy as his pussy. "Tell them your pussy takes umbrage at their comment," Jeremy says to Sam, listening in.

"My pussy takes umbrage at your comment," Sam said.
"Umbrage to your comment," one of them said, and they hung up.
Sam regretted making the phony call.
"Well?" Jeremy said.
"They corrected you."
"Corrected what?"
"They said it’s umbrage to your comment."

The spat reaches a kind-of Cohen brothers absurdity with a showdown in the PriceChopper parking lot. Approaching the Two Men, Jeremy takes out a sheet of paper and reads prose excerpts containing "umbrage at"—a trash-talking that erupts into a fist fight.

There’s always substance beneath the fun. The smaller the offense, the pettier the argument, the more Parker reveals the humanity of his characters. These are stories about people missing the point. Or missing the obvious, as in "Two Hours and Fifty-three Minutes," an e-pistolary story in which a man finds out via email exchanges that two of his ex-girlfriends "aborted" fake pregnancies. In "James’s Fear of Birds," the narrator is left to babysit his girlfriend’s cockatiel while she cheats on him in another city. And in the title story, Sam cannot see the gaping absences in his life because he’s too focused on the presence of a foreign object passing through his body.

There’s a danger in writing about oblivious characters: the author runs the risk of appearing to be in the dark himself. But just as Parker’s rendering of language mishaps is carried out in stunning prose, his handle on dramatic irony subtly underscores everything his protagonists fail to see. Even when these characters appear hopelessly distracted, hoodwinked, and lost, readers can rest assured they’re in capable hands.

Jeff Parker
The Taste of Penny
Dzanc Books, 2010