By Jane McCafferty
Perennial. 210 pp. $12.95 (paper)
There are many mothers in the 14 short stories comprising Thank You for the Music, the new collection from Jane McCafferty. One of them is Patricia, who learns in "Berna's Place" that her 25-year-old son, Griffin, has married a 60-year-old veterinarian. During an awkward first meeting, Patricia's husband, Jude, a painter, is furious at his son's weirdness; meanwhile, it's clear that while Griffin loves Berna, he's also pleased to so succinctly shock his parents, especially his self-absorbed father.
But this is really Patricia's story. She narrates, shortly telling us of Jude's past affair with a much younger woman. Then, when we're suspecting she's a doormat, Patricia surprises us, and herself, with her own fling with a younger partner. Betraying perhaps a touch of pride, she informs Jude of her affair -- which in turn spurs him to reveal four more of his own.
Patricia demands that Jude spill all, then contemplates where her candor has stranded her:
I was on this new cold floor in the same old sky-scraper and it seemed I had a new voice to go with it, a lower, more detached sort of voice, which was the very opposite of what I felt in the dead center of my heart. It was terror I felt. Because he'd stolen my sense of our past, and I had nothing to replace it with yet.
All the protagonists in Thank You for the Music aren't moms. We meet men, girls and young single women, too. But perhaps what the award-winning author and Carnegie Mellon University instructor's fine collection finds them sharing most is the experience of not only telling their stories, but of being told the stories of others -- understanding and being understood.
The theme inhabits the book's first story, "Family on Ice," in which a young divorced mother battles jealousy watching the man she loves being won by another woman. Jealousy likewise fires "The Pastor's Brother," whose protagonist struggles with an emotional blockage that erupts in a bilious and disastrously timed insult. In "So Long, Marianne," a young woman yearns for a relationship in which she leaves behind the confining stories of her past -- but even she struggles to express herself to a boyfriend who's slipping away.
If McCafferty's stories are sometimes about outsiders, they're also, sometimes, about outsiders finding community, or something like family. The "Family on Ice" narrator -- her tough, wry voice amusingly rendered by McCafferty -- meets a kindred spirit in an unlikely place. In the concise "You Could Never Love the Clown I Love," two college kids' ridiculous amorous chatter penetrates paper-thin walls and keeps a working-class clown from mastering his juggling pins; McCafferty turns the sketch-like premise into a touching vignette about fellowship. The 11-year-old protagonist of "Embraced," struggles to understand her relationship to her grandmother and newly divorced mother -- two genuinely funny wisecracking broads who hide their hurt beneath a tissue of jocularity -- and a closeness to them she's almost ready to admit to herself.
McCafferty's characters include both the working-class protagonist of "Light of Lucy," full of middle-aged desperation, and the lonely retired philosophy professor of "Stadium Hearts" who likewise seeks communion with a stranger. Other themes, more on the surface, also unite the stories: The ghosts of 9/11 -- especially fears of terrorism -- haunt the characters, but no more than they need to. And as the collection's title suggests, music plays a role in most of the selections, though that's probably not something you'd note if it weren't pointed out.
Both preoccupations unite in "Dear Mr. Springsteen." It's told in the form of a letter to Bruce Springsteen from a lonely young divorced white woman who, listening to Springsteen's 9/11-themed album The Rising late one night, makes an unlikely friend of a teen-age African-American boy.
The story is whipped along by the emotional vulnerability of the narrator. But McCafferty's writing -- her spark-like details, her feel for character -- is strong enough to survive this roll in naked sentiment. And there's something more, too: We realize that the "Springsteen" narrator's openness, her willingness to trust and to fail, makes her someone we ought to be, at least sometimes, and even if we'd rather not. Someone who's willing to share her stories, and our common humanity.