Appearing beneath the title of Said Sayrafiezadeh’s first collection of stories, “Brief Encounters with the Enemy,” is the subtitle “fiction” — not “stories.” It’s a move by Sayrafiezadeh and his publishing team that recalls a time when authors could publish story collections under titles such as “Bech: A Book” (John Updike) or “Pictures of Fidelman: An Exhibition” (Bernard Malamud). Although “Brief Encounters” shouldn’t be confused for a novel, Sayrafiezadeh’s eight interlinked stories are just as fulfilling as any novel you’re likely to read this summer. Each story delivers the satisfaction of the short form (beginning, middle, epiphany) while disguising itself as a chapter in a larger, thematically inclined arena.
Sayrafiezadeh’s previous book, “When Skateboards Will Be Free,” was a touching memoir about growing up under the roof of the communist Worker’s Party. But more recently he’s been publishing short stories in the New Yorker, where three of these previously appeared.
Set against the backdrop of a foreign war, these eight stories document contemporary American life during wartime in a dying industrial city, where the barren streets and closed factories recall a recently bankrupt Detroit, and where upper middle-class suburbs orbit just out of everyone’s reach. Each tale is narrated by a young man either in or recently out of a blue-collar job, with a few characters rising to middle management and stagnantly unhappy.
Sayrafiezadeh’s narrators speak in familiar voices — introspective, cynical, perhaps emotionally stunted. They fall in and out of love with troubled women. Their co-workers and friends enlist or are drafted into the military and disappear abroad as the nameless war evolves from rumor, to dread, and finally into actuality.
In “Appetite,” a short-order cook named Ike develops a fascination with an anorexic waitress. Ike is determined to ask for a raise but is stunted due to badly timed moments with his manager. Like many of Sayrafiezadeh’s characters, Ike is stuck in a job he’s had since graduating high school years prior. In one memorable scene, Ike mourns his graduation day during a valedictorian’s “tedious and patronizing” speech. “Sitting in the audience with five hundred other students, I had the unsettling awareness that I had already been consigned to a life of mediocrity . . . I would forever be indistinguishable from all the others who had not been chosen. . . . I am the addressee, I kept thinking as the valedictorian droned on. I will always be the addressee.”
Ike is closely related to the other narrators in the collection — young men during wartime, some participating in the war, most of them not. Each story is told from the voice of the addressee. Their voices bleed into each other, providing a continuity that gives the collection its novel-like satisfaction. As one story ends, the state of the war and the temperature of the country is seamlessly updated in the next.
The title story, “Brief Encounters with the Enemy” (Sayrafiezadeh’s only actual “war” story), recounts a man’s final days in deployment. It’s a simple tale about soldiers building a bridge to get into enemy-occupied territory and the danger they are determined to avoid. But Sayrafiezadeh tells his modern war story with carefully placed despair and plenty of humor, like when planes fly overhead and the narrator, Luke, along with the rest of his platoon, jumps up and down, waving “as if we were on a desert island, hoping the pilots would give a signal.” The signal never comes as the platoon finds out they’ve been waving at drones all along. On his last day, Luke, alone on post, comes face to face with the enemy, an unarmed man. With his rifle on target, Luke arrives at a crossroads — to act or not to act — what he finds is that neither choice resembles heroism of any kind.
But most of the battle in Sayrafiezadeh’s carefully constructed collection is fought by his cast of “addressees” in restaurant kitchens, grim office spaces, Walmarts, and supermarkets. The enemy, mostly middle management despots, comes at you with reprimands and demotions, not guns or bombs. The fear of getting caught dead in some erroneous act is forever present in these narrators’ lives. And by some miraculous act of self-will, when faced with the enemy, they prevail.Alex Gilvarry is the author of the novel “From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant,” recently out in paperback. He can be reached at Gilvarry@gmail.com.