It is true that there is no mistaking an Edith Pearlman story for anything but an Edith Pearlman story. But it’s also true that part of what makes an Edith Pearlman story — including those in “Honeydew,” her fifth collection — so sui generis is the way she selectively incorporates elements of some of the great writers who’ve come before her, and makes them her own.
For instance, you can see elements of John Cheever’s WASPy fictional Shady Hill in Pearlman’s slightly more diverse metro Boston suburb, Godolphin. Likewise, like Grace Paley, Pearlman has little use for linear story-telling, and instead prefers to veer suddenly, and thrillingly, from scene to scene, point of view to point of view. But Pearlman’s characters tend to be more politically ambivalent than Paley’s.
In the collection’s opening story “Tenderfoot,” a character is “in favor of the war, more or less.” God, I love that “more or less”! How much better would our country, our discourse, be if after every definitive political statement one were made to amend it with that “more or less”? This is not to say that the stories are cynical, but it is to say that their protagonists have witnessed lots of right-minded people doing wrong-headed things. And like the great Muriel Spark, Pearlman takes great pleasure in her characters’ fallibility, a pleasure that might seem cruel if it were no so spot on, so smart, so full of joy.
For instance, in “Assisted Living” — one of the greatest stories in this great collection — an elderly couple is forced to sell their longtime home and Pearlman’s omniscient narrator says about their successors, “A breezy young couple bought the town house. They would no doubt gut the place from front to back before they divorced.” In that brief, cutting forecast, we get deep insight into a couple, a class, a generation, a place, its future. Unlike the globe-trotting Spark, Pearlman sticks mostly to her Yankee postage stamp. But by (mostly) sticking to that place, Pearlman is able to see equally far out, and in.
Cheever, Paley, Spark: these, I realize, are some big names. But Pearlman deserves the comparisons, and this is the point toward which I’ve been meandering: Pearlman is our greatest living American short story writer, and “Honeydew” is her best collection yet.
I mentioned earlier that it is easy to recognize a Pearlman story, and her readers — especially those of her previous collection, “Binocular Vision”, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a National Book Award finalist — will get to glory again in those familiars. As I mentioned, the stories are mostly set in Godolphin. They are notable for their speed, their irregular structures and pacing, for the way Pearlman fills their small spaces with multiple points of view and large intergenerational casts of characters, and for Pearlman’s wise, idiosyncratic handling of those characters’ crimes and misdemeanors.
For instance, Pearlman’s characters often conduct their romantic affairs in secret, but the omniscient narrators almost never see the affairs or the secrecy, as tragic, but rather necessary. As a result, even the failures of those romances are seen as triumphs. As the women at the end of “Her Cousin Jamie” admit as they retell the story of the titular cousin’s doomed love affair: “Barbara said, ‘So she’s up in her room right now, hair loose, glasses off, reliving it all, drenched in guilt.’ ‘Yes,’ Fern said. She was staring at the olive in the bottom of her glass. ‘Some people have all the luck.’”
Likewise, Pearlman (like Spark) is expert at bending characters’ to her authorial will without making their stories seem at all calculated. In the marvelous “Hat Trick”, a mother tells her daughter and her daughter’s friends that “men are interchangeable.” To prove her point she makes them write down the names of random boys and men and then puts those names in the hat. The girls draw names and are told to go marry the men whose names they’ve drawn. Some of them actually do and you think you know how those marriages will end up, and yet you do not, you don’t know anything you think you know. And this is yet another one of Pearlman’s great talents: she knows more than you, and yet you don’t end up resenting her for it, because hers is a happy wisdom, a learnedness not overly impressed with itself.
In the collection’s last story, “Honeydew” a headmistress at a girls school has been impregnated by the father of one of her most brilliant, troubled students. The student in question is obsessed with bugs: “she had read that after death and before decomposition, the epidermis of a deceased human develops a leathery hardness […] which begins to resemble the beetles that gorge on the decaying corpse and defecate at the same time, turning flesh into compost. The uses of [feces] were many. The most delightful was manna”. Do you see how that passage moves, from erudition (worn lightly), through vulgarity (used cheerfully) to beauty and sustenance (arrived at surprisingly)? You don’t see that in many short stories and novels, but in “Honeydew”, as in all of Pearlman’s fiction, as with only the greatest of writers, you see it all the time.
Brock Clarke’s most recent novel is, “The Happiest People in the World.”