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Paula Whyman’s debut collection of stories, You May See a Stranger, spans three decades, following D.C. native Miranda Weber from her high school driver’s education class to marriage and motherhood. While the city’s crises change—the crack epidemic of ’80s, the “murder capital” days, 9/11, the Beltway sniper attacks—Weber’s personal crisis remains the same. She allows men to push her around: a troublemaking teen, a swaggering party boy who refuses to grow up, a married media executive, an electronics repairman, and finally, even the austere engineer she marries.
Her vulnerability is puzzling. While she clearly enjoys sex and likes the power her body wields, good looks aren’t her only strength. She’s also observant, sharp, and funny. But for the most of the book, she keeps her observations to herself. “I briefly entertain the idea of making my own little announcement,” Weber thinks in the title story. “It’s as if there are two different conversations going on, the one everyone else is having, and the imagined one in my head. I have to try hard not to confuse myself.” It’s confusing for the reader too and a bit unbelievable: Why doesn’t she say what’s on her mind? Why would such a sharp woman put up with so much crap?
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Weber feels guilt over the way she treated her older sister who has a disability, but that doesn’t explain why she repeatedly lets men use and then discard her. However, growing up with someone who wasn’t “normal,” as Weber puts it, does explain her perceptive eye. Her boyfriend drives an old Mercedes because “the idea is to look like they don’t care about money, or even think about it.” Her boss is a “bilious troglodyte” whose “monogrammed cuffs are stained with mustard” and who tips poorly.
These anthropological observations often make use of similes that are frequently surprising, humorous, and spot-on: “Cheever keeps squeezing Natasha’s arm as if she’s a fresh loaf of Wonder Bread.” An older man runs his tongue over her ear, creating a sound “like someone fumbling with a microphone when they don’t know it’s switched on.” Weber snorts lines of coke at her dealer’s house like they’re “free samples in the cheese aisle.”
But some of Whyman’s details are a bit cringe-worthy: The movie that’s stuck in her VCR is Fatal Attraction, and she ends up sleeping with the VCR repairman. The bar she and her friend like to frequent is called Heaven and Hell—you have to go through Hell, where there is no dancing, to get to Heaven, where there is.
Eventually we learn that, when Weber was a child, a relative sexually abused her. Her grandmother’s second husband exposed himself to her, and she’s never told anyone, until now, in the writing of the story. She explains that she felt “silly” mentioning the incident when she wasn’t sure it did her any harm. But it’s clear, from her relationships, that some harm has been done. Allusions to this incident earlier on could have helped make her actions more understandable.
Whyman speaks truths about the District that can only be learned from living here for so long. “If there was one thing you learned from growing up in D.C., it was that government workers were lazy bums, and their jobs were regimented and dull as the Agriculture building, which was modeled after a prison,” Weber observes when her parents urge her to apply for a government job. And then there’s Whyman’s traffic-circle-as-life metaphor: “All the major roads in D.C. lead to traffic circles, eventually… L’Enfant intended for these circles to be destinations; instead they’re obstacles.” Weber notes that it’s safer to keep driving around in circles if you don’t know how they work. And so she keeps circling, prompting the reader to wonder why, after all these years of driving in D.C., does she still not know how to get off?
Whyman reads at Kramerbooks on Monday at 6:30 p.m. Free.