You can believe what you want, but the short story— despite the cries from literary heavyweights far and wide is not dead. It’s very much alive, not only in erotica, but in marvelous collections like Guy Mark Foster’s The Rest of Us, the debut volume of the Tincture imprint of Lethe Press, devoted to the work of people of color.
Few of the African-American men in Foster’s stories are in the throes of coming out. Most of them have already made that decision and taken action on it. They are, instead, dealing with the reactions of other lovers, spouses, and members of society. Their blackness, like their gayness, is only a part of their struggle and not the essential fight. They fight instead, as so many of us do, for love, affection, and understanding.
Foster clearly stakes out his territory in the first piece, the stream of consciousness life-lesson of “Boy,” a series of commands about how to act. Innocuous advice about sitting up straight, tucking in your shirt and paying attention when people talk soon morphs into the mistakes and bad decisions passed down from generation to generation:
“…absolve yourself of all guilt in your efforts at child-rearing, as I’ve absolved myself, as my father absolved himself before me; refuse the role of scapegoat in other people’s life dramas, it’s unmanly, and people won’t too easily peg you for the punk you are probably right under my roof becoming; never become a punk, even if that is exactly what you are already, instead fight it, slit your fucking wrist if you have to, leap from a bridge…”
The issue of race is also dealt with head on in “The Word Nigger,” which sees the ninth-grade narrator listening to his white friend Bobby read a passage from Hemingway, only to stumble and fail on a sentence containing the word “nigger,” completed happily by Bobby’s white girlfriend, Fiona Brown. She later calls the narrator out while they are watching Bobby and the other boys practice basketball, making them all realize the differences between them.
Fiona is not the only “wronged” woman in these pages. “The Affair” has gay college student Mark falling in love with the engaged Troy, who must break off with Mark or risk his relationship with Bethany, a straight couple faces dissolution when they hire a male sex surrogate to spice up their love life in the astonishingly frank “You Get What You Pay For,” and a late night phone call between a wife and her husband’s boyfriend forms the basis of the bitter “Congratulations.”
But perhaps my favorite of the lot is the title story, which has out couple Martin and Paul debating the merit or mistake of their public display of affection on a late night subway train witnessed by a group of youths—or possible assailants. This simple, yet telling story parlays the incident into a marvelous division of character between the two men, who long for the ability to express their love as much as they fear the reactions of others. Powerful in a number of respects, this story transcends race and achieves a beautiful universality.
But the rest of the stories in this collection are equally daring. Told from a variety of viewpoints, they never bore or repeat themselves. “The Rest of Us” is a wonderfully varied and absorbing read from start to finish.
©, 2013, Jerry Wheeler