- Bastard Mentors
University of Iowa Press
192 Pages; Print, $17.00
Society nearly fetishizes the role of the mentor. In any corporation in America, an employee can make up for a near total lack of productivity if that employee can convince his managers that he is a mentor to newer employees. In a way, this makes sense: if you are contributing to the future productivity of a whole generation of workers, isn't that more important than being a good worker today?
Matthew Lansburgh's series of linked short stories, Outside is the Ocean, demonstrates a healthy skepticism toward would-be mentors. For every person who gives of herself because she cares, there are ten more self-serving advisors in it for their own reasons. Indeed, the relationship between mother Heike and her son Stewart is so toxic, the first comparisons it brings to mind are to Augusten Burrows' memoir Running with Scissors (2002). Heike uses advice to shame her son into complying with her wishes, as she manipulates nearly everyone in her life. She moves through three husbands in her life, with each, advancing in her ability to get what she needs out of them.
Heike, however, is desperately in need of advice herself. Outside depicts her receiving both gratuitous and asked-for advice about one of her obvious areas for improvement. Her English is not perfect, as she arrived from Germany at age twenty. Her first husband, Raymond, the only less sympathetic character in the book than Heike, forces language help upon her: "In school, English was always her best subject, but here in America people talk quickly and sometimes—often—she still makes mistakes. Raymond likes to correct her. 'Adverbs end in l-y,' he instructs."
His instruction is unwanted, but Heike knows she needs to improve, so she pays the girl down the street to tutor her. "Even if it is a small thing, please correct me," she asks the girl.
Once her son, Stewart, is old enough to be embarrassed by his mother's freeness towards showing her body in public and sharing details about her love life with him in private, he rejects advice from his mother. This includes even some good advice. After ignoring his mother's caution about contracting AIDS, he himself wonders if he is playing with fire by running around with too many men in New York in the 1980s.
Much as his mother overcompensates for rejecting Raymond's advice by asking the neighbor girl to correct even small mistakes, Stewart seeks out men who will be forceful telling him what to do. At the exact moment Stewart, while exasperated about mess his mother had created by taking a neighbor's dog for a walk without permission and then allowing the dog to get skunked, is wondering how he will "get from point A to point B," he finds himself reminiscing about a man who had "made it clear who was boss, who was going to do the fucking."
Perhaps not coincidentally, soon after thinking of this man who forced himself upon Stewart, Stewart realizes that his own mother may need some direction from him: "He wanted to say something else, felt he ought to say more." But if Heike's weakness is giving her son too much advice, his is that he gives her too little: "He knew what his mother wanted to hear, but, instead of comforting her, he sat in the car next to her, unable, unwilling to respond."
While Stewart and Heike seem caught in a cycle of damaging one another through advice that is forced, ignored, and withheld, the one character who escapes the cycle is the one most vulnerable to it: Heike's adopted daughter Galina. On the surface, adopting a Russian girl who lost an arm through suspicious circumstances might be Heike's most selfless act, but there are dark hints Heike might have also been motivated by a desire to make her grown son, who now ignores her, jealous: "For years, she'd been threatening to adopt one of the children she sponsored . . . so she would have...