- Stalls and Starts
Black Lawrence Press
134 Pages; Print, $12.00
Roads are the major arteries connecting the disparate parts and persons of Craig Bernier’s, Your Life Idyllic, a collection of short stories about the Motor City. A shortcut delivers a factory man to his time clock; a traffic jam delays a trucker facing his own mortality, and neon roadside temptations drag many of the characters away from their own good intentions. The roads of Bernier’s stories wind through time and space—from the 1980s to the post-2008 financial collapse America—from the tony suburbs to East Side poll halls; they are traveled by loaded F150s and a 1973 Lincoln. This collection of realist vignettes is an American road story sans manifest destiny.
Your Life Idyllic is not a unidirectional journey through a city in decline; it is a collection that ebbs and flows, stalls and starts, as it traces the reinventions and the dissolutions that characterize the rust belt in transition. In a country of increasingly alienated classes, Bernier yokes them back into proximity—finding narrative space for a Grosse Pointe teenager on her way to Paris, a drunk smashing his skull into the ground of the hospital emergency room, and a busy Wal-Mart cashier on the day after Christmas. The narrative challenges dominant economic myths of the pull-yourself-up-by the bootstraps meritocracy—showing a second generation of men losing ground in their fathers’s American Dream; and it questions the reliance on bald self-interest as a metric for human behavior— depicting equally irrational instances of violence and altruism.
A feeling of uncertainty and dread pervades the collection. Sometimes, this fear is remote and impersonal, like witnessing a wreck, “a thick plume of black inky smoke rising above empty lots and dilapidated houses,” and sometimes it is acute, “Who the hell am I going to lay off?” Other times it is in pursuit that is as untraceable as a police car when it screams by lights flashing and sirens silent. The dread comes in these various forms, but it is always intertwined with the economic conditions of the industrial city with its industrial people in a post-industrial economy. Sometimes, the fear comes from the real material conditions of want, but often it comes from the inexplicability of these disparities. The collection calls upon its reader to question the sense-making myths that he or she relies on in the face of tragedy.
Even when the collection breaks form— turning away from the sharp-edges of Detroit to a hazy California and shifting to the titular second person, as it does for the third chapter, “The Manual of Heavy Drinking”—it is the accidents of the road which become emblematic of the strategies of self-deception the chapter exposes. In a cunning reversal of the self-help genre, the narrator directs the reader toward delusion; the imperatives compel the reader to become his or her own storyteller, qualifying, managing, and excusing drunken recklessness:
Sit down have a drink. At no time should you acknowledge denial. Despite the argument’s convincing slant, deny it. It’s cousin to the ad hominem and constructed to discredit your defense—that you are not in denial—by using your circumstance—that you are in denial— as true and valid premise.
The installments of the manual grow progressively dark, revealing the futility of such self-stylings; after a traffic accident, the narrator commands, “Whatever happens, be grateful you didn’t kill any children. You’ve again confined the damage to yourself and property. Keep telling yourself that.” The directives of this important chapter resonate throughout the collection, serving as a caution to the unreliable reader too apt to be lulled into the fantasies and addictions of each protagonist. This second-person exposé cautions the reader to be attentive to the ways we simultaneously excuse and defend both our narrative guides and ourselves.
A few celebrity cameos bring into sharp relief the inconsistent effects of the American economy. Two Michigan natives—Eminem and Madonna— make appearances in the collection, and what is initially remarkable...