New York City has lent itself to tales of class, racial, and sexual conflict since the beginning of American literature. But Alejandro Varela’s linked story collection “The People Who Report More Stress” elevates timeworn settings and themes with humor, pathos, and a relentless intersectional specificity, bringing today’s New York City and its ever-increasing complexities to life.
The book begins with stories that feel more like vignettes. In “An Other Man,” a married gay Latinx tentatively starts using a dating app when given permission by his husband. In “She and Her Kid and Me and Mine,” a gay father endures a playdate between his children and those of a white, well-to-do cishet mother, bubbling up their racial and socioeconomic differences. The protagonist’s rambling internal monologue gives us precious insight into his neuroses: “No, I don’t want to have those conversations with Bobby’s mom, not in my living room, and maybe never. Not because she’s wrong, but because there’d be no wiggle room to discuss solidarity and no space to strategize how we should wrest power from white men, who seem to walk away from all of our situations unscathed, their stress indicators unchanged, whistling even. To further complicate matters, we are both married to white men.”
The stories gradually become wider in scope and take the reader into more unfamiliar territory. Set in the 1980s, “Midtown-West Side Story” spotlights a couple that fences high-end designer clothes to support their family, endangering themselves and their finances in the process. In “Carlitos in Charge,” Varela brings us into the fascinating world of the United Nations, where the protagonist Carlitos is a health researcher “tasked with taking complicated research and reducing it to talking points — bulleted lists, fourteen-point font.” Carlitos, whose family is from El Salvador, hooks up repeatedly with a white American co-worker named Brad, a “trust fund kid” with “half an MBA.” “Corridors and bathrooms in the UN were how all streets and bathrooms used to be — namely gay and closeted,” Carlito observes. “Discretion, after all, wasn’t only the mode at the UN; it was the guiding principle, for both policy-making and fornication.”
As Carlitos and Brad’s romantic involvement deepens, the absurd bureaucratic maneuverings of the nations they represent wedge themselves in their relationship. With China supporting a truth and reconciliation committee to investigate war crimes in El Salvador, the United States is stuck in a hard place: It can’t show agreement with China on any human rights issue. And because the United States wants to ask El Salvador to rename its largest garment-factory city “USA” in the next Central American trade agreement (so apparel coming out of the country will read “Made in USA”), Brad wants Carlitos to get El Salvador to re-recognize Taiwan and anger China enough to pull its support for the committee, so the United States can swoop in and once again look like a human rights champion.
“The Great Potato Famine” could easily be an episode of the TV show “Atlanta.” Set during the Obama presidency and therefore in the pre-rideshare era, the main character takes a cab driven by a white man listening to conservative talk radio. When the cab’s credit card machine breaks, our cashless main character has to stop at an ATM. A mutual racial, political, and class-based distrust between the driver and passenger makes something as straightforward as getting cash out of a bodega ATM very complicated, and quite funny: “… I was besieged by the base desire to tell him off, to let him know that whatever potato famine or religious persecution had inspirited his great grandparents to abandon their leeward-facing, bluff-situated stone cottage and risk their lives on a transatlantic voyage was no longer. That he could probably apply for any number of EU citizenships and return to his ancestral village, where he would be welcomed (arms open, eyes blue) because of its stagnating population growth.”
The stories in the second half of the collection achieve greater emotional resonance, dealing with issues of aging relatives, long-term partnerships, and getting cancer when young. They also link together more openly as we follow the unnamed first-person narrator and his husband, Gus, who emerges from the namelessness of earlier stories. We know it’s the same husband because in a scene in the first story, he’s reading an Octavia Butler book, while in the collection’s title story — also the book’s last — Gus is described as reading “only Black women’s work in the hopes it’ll autocorrect his whiteness.”
In this final story, Gus becomes the main character’s caretaker as he receives chemotherapy for stage 2 colon cancer. Portrayed throughout the book as well-meaning and composed, Gus begins sobbing when faced with the possibility of losing his husband. “I’d never seen him like this,” says the narrator. “I’d never seen him afraid.” Varela seems to remind us that despite our intersectional differences, death and loss can be the ultimate equalizers.
“The People Who Report More Stress” is a smartly curated collection that gets better as it goes along, building to the epiphanies missing in the earlier stories. Varela’s witty, observant prose lifts each of these stories, even if the premises are decidedly grounded in real world and contemporary concerns. There’s a wisdom and lightness to Varela’s work that nudges us toward the conclusion that our divisions, while there may be many, can be mended.
THE PEOPLE WHO REPORT MORE STRESS: STORIES
By Alejandro Varela
Astra House, 256 pages, $26
Leland Cheuk is an award-winning author of three books of fiction, most recently “No Good Very Bad Asian.” His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, and Salon, among other outlets.