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The stories in Leni Zumas’ debut collection, Farewell Navigator, deal in the familiar stuff of awkward adolescence—getting your heart broken, wanting to run away from home, squabbling with your parents. But in the same way that Sonic Youth mucked with obscure guitar tunings and still found a way into pop music, Zumas has a knack for telling stories with a familiar ring in a surpassingly strange manner. (As it happens, Zumas plays drums for S-S-S-Spectres, a woolly Brooklyn postpunk band that’d fit just fine on a Sonic Youth bill.) For instance, in that running-away-from-home story, “Thieves and Mapmakers,” the teenage heroine is the archetypal girl stuck in a dead-end town where “live music only happened if there was a wedding.” So when a touring band arrives at the YMCA gym, she’s smitten with the singer, Squinch, and hops in the van. She soon learns that she’s his toy, of course: “I knew that when Squinch gave me his sunglasses to wear, it was in order to see his reflection in them when he bent to kiss me.” Woven into this story, though, is a surrealistic glimpse of Squinch’s chest, which is scarred and only partly repaired; the muscle underneath is bared under the poorly stitched skin. “It’s cool if you touch it,” he tells her, and that moment feels at once frightening, visceral, and oddly romantic. Zumas revels in this kind of unusual, off-putting imagery—characters pick and pull at their scars more than once in the book’s 10 stories—and she uses it as a way to show just how human connections frustrate her characters. In “Heart Sockets,” a woman’s unrequited love brings her to fantasize about caring for wild animals a little too intimately: “When you nurse a baby eel, don’t leave its mouth at your nipple too long.” In the title story, a boy’s mom and dad, Blue and Black, are both blind; Mom, we learn, stabbed her eyes out with a pencil. Yet those grotesqueries are usually set against some lovely turns of phrase, as when Mom asks him to tell her the color of his best friend’s eyes: “I report to Blue: Green.” The young gay man in “How He Was a Wicked Son” muses on his crush in a similarly singsong manner, pondering his “swollen lips, gloomy stare, scrawny hips, hacked-off hair.” Each of Zumas’ stories tweak storytelling conventions in a different way, and not every attempt sails. “Dragons May Be the Way Forward” attempts to connect James Agee’s biography, word quizzes, and a frayed mother-daughter relationship to no useful end, and “Leopard Arms” attempts to say something about emotionally anesthetized Americans, a notion that’s high-flown enough without being told from the perspective of a building gargoyle. Better to give those failures a whirl, though, than to wind up like Horace, the young man at the center of “The Everything Hater,” one of the collection’s best-turned stories. A ne’er-do-well who takes writing classes at the community center but writes nothing, Horace is a symbol of an inability to experiment, a lost soul “who roams in a tiny circle from his apartment to the blood bank to the bar and back again.”
Leni Zumas discusses and signs copies of her work at 6 p.m. Saturday, June 14, at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Free. (202) 364-1919.