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Lisa works at her father’s statuary business selling stone squirrels, fairies, frogs, hedgehogs, Alices in Wonderland, Jesuses, cherubs, and, of course, gnomes—Big Pat’s best-selling item. But the lawn ornament that Lisa’s mother chose to decorate the family’s own backyard—just behind the business—doesn’t include any of those whimsical characters. It’s a bird bath made of “just plain granite with sharp, sensuous lines, unapologetic for its functional strength, its elegant simplicity.” Lisa finds herself gazing at this bird bath on her 40th birthday, reflecting on its similarity to her mother and how her own life looks more like her sunken grocery-store birthday cake. “The dark sink hole in the white sugary surface looks angry and deep and is a little like the feeling you have in your chest,” Lisa thinks. She has plenty to be upset about: Her ex-boyfriend, whom she may still be in love with, is engaged to a much younger woman; she lives in the garage apartment behind the family business; and her mother died of a brain aneurysm when she was 12 years old.
Lisa’s messy life is typical of the characters in Get a Grip, Baltimore-based writer Kathy Flann’s collection of short stories. Mrs. Polasky is a widow with debilitating neuropathy whose husband dies of a cocaine-induced heart attack in the middle of a tryst with a younger employee. Two Estonian brothers from a violent Baltimore neighborhood lose their chance at college basketball scholarships when their bus breaks down. Alexander is an alcoholic executive whose wife gives birth to stillborn twins and then leaves him for his competitor.
Flann imagines an impressively diverse set of lives. But the characters are unified by their misfortune and their struggle to “get a grip” on their lives as they yearn for higher callings. Nearly all of the characters have a spouse, child, or parent who died prematurely or abandoned them, sometimes both. Emerging from these losses is a tendency toward self-destructive behavior. Lisa helps her ex-boyfriend plan his proposal to his girlfriend, even though she knows he still has feelings for her, which she returns. Ned refuses to go to the hospital after he gets in a bad bike crash. Franz smokes weed a week before his new job’s drug test. It’s clear that Flann is interested in how people’s self loathing causes them to resist help or happiness, often injuring those who love them in the process. But these characters are so broken it’s almost unbelievable. Flann seems so eager to make things happen in her stories that they resemble TV dramas in which increasingly absurd events unfold in order to coax the viewer to tune in the next week.
All the action comes at the expense of insight into the characters’ thoughts and feelings, which makes it difficult to understand and believe their subsequent behaviors. This is because the characters’ thoughts often don’t reflect the way most people think; they’re too complete, too expository: “Now, he knows, in a way he hasn’t before, that people hide inside themselves and outside themselves, as if they are avoiding enemy fire, as if they are at war.”
Flann would be better off keeping the stories simple, like the bird bath in the title story, which sticks in Lisa’s mind long after it is gone. Perhaps it is telling that a gnome—rather than the bird bath—appears on the book’s cover.