“Our story,” says one of Karen E. Bender’s characters, “was the usual sad story of our current era.”
Indeed, at times the circumstances depicted in “Refund,” Bender’s new collection of short stories, seem so unremarkable that one wonders what all the fuss is about. A lost job here, a real estate scam there, a slew of shootings — is this not simply the way things are and always have been?
The stories in “Refund” revolve around people who have found themselves in jobs with little security, little pay, and little-to-no opportunity for growth. They are what economists have come to call the “precariat,” a portmanteau of “precarious” and “proletariat” that describes an emerging class of workers whose lives are defined by economic insecurity. Long a topic of conversation in Europe, the concept of “precarious work” has become more visible in the United States in the wake of the global financial crisis. And Bender’s tales document the strains and anxieties that haunt those who seem to teeter perpetually on the brink of ruin.
In this new, uncertain world, Bender’s characters struggle to assess their worth. Laid off after 17 years of service, Donna muses in “Free Lunch” that, although she wasn’t passionate about her job, it was her “one small glory,” she says, “my use.”
The feeling is replaced by “nothing but numbness and résumés. Trying to figure out how fast we could keep from sinking. Could we dream money and see it show up in the checking account? How little could we spend, eat?”
What were once viewed as symbols of success — a big, suburban home, a large family — become traps, and Bender uses them to paint a claustrophobic portrait of her characters’ lives.
In “Reunion,” Anna looks out her window and sees “houses . . . slapped together with drywall and paste,” with “bullish SUVs parked in the driveways, testament to dreams of safety, and of endless oil.” It’s a boom town in bust times. The screaming, disdainful children littered through the stories offer little solace to their parents. “They wanted everything,” laments the mother in “What the Cat Said,” “and we could only give them so little.”
These stories are replete with poignant, tragic moments, where the characters delude themselves in the hopes of escaping their circumstances, taking foolish risks that, in better times, they would have scoffed at. Anna, for example, is rolled by a smooth-talking ex who promises her a plot of beachfront property if only she’ll part with what little money she has left.
But Bender achieves her greatest successes when taking on the predator’s point of view. In “Theft,” she tells the story of Ginger Klein, an 82-year-old con artist taking an ocean cruise. “Her awareness,” writes Bender, “had been her great gift: of the best hour to meet the lonely, of the hair style that would make her look most innocent . . . and of course, of the moment when she knew that what a person owned would belong to her.”
The collection’s most beautiful story, “Anything for Money,” follows the producer of a game show in which people debase themselves on television for cash prizes, as he gets to know his estranged granddaughter, Aurora. When the girl develops a heart condition that requires a transplant, he finds himself for the first time in the same vulnerable position as the contestants he exploits.
Bender offers no easy answers in “Refund,” and her stories often end on sad, ambiguous notes. But her graceful and sensitive treatment of her characters reminds us that in difficult times, it’s important to remember that everyone is fighting a hard battle.Michael Patrick Brady, a writer from Boston, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @michaelpbrady.