“You can’t live on bread…,” a woman tells her lover, Mike, in You Should Pity Us Instead, Amy Gustine’s debut collection of stories. But Mike replies, “Prisoners do.” Such are the meager lives of Gustine’s characters in this collection of stories about people in trying times. The tone of You Should Pity Us Instead is somber, but this is not a negative critique; in fact, Gustine’s stories illustrate well the strengths of the genre, and how small moments of pain can end up affecting people deeply. Short stories allow the reader glimpses into a few heartbeats of a life, and it is usually in our most difficult moments that we define our own personalities. Gustine writes of people in all manner of ethically fraught and difficult situations: a doctor who examines the eyes of immigrants as they enter the United States at Ellis Island; a father who packs up his daughter’s apartment after she commits suicide; a mother, beset by constant ear pain, who struggles to care for her screaming infant. Gustine’s stories often center on ideas of neglect or difficult decisions. Sometimes, these ideas inform each other as characters either choose to care for themselves or their loved ones. Gustine understands both the constraints and the benefits of the short story genre; You Should Pity Us Instead is a solid collection that illustrates the difficulty of being alive.
Many of Gustine’s stories exemplify how faith and irony conspire to complicate our ideas about ourselves. In the title story, Gustine writes of a family that moves from Berkeley to Ohio. The father has recently published a book about the stupidity of faith and modern religion. While the book is met with wild acclaim on both coasts, the family struggles to fit in among their community of diverse, but mostly devout, Midwestern peers. At the heart of “You Should Pity Us Instead” is an awareness of how we complicate the human condition by deciding that things should be black and white. What Gustine does in “You Should Pity Us Instead” is examine how complex a choice like not raising one’s kids in a religion can be. There are, of course, no easy answers for the kids’ fears about death and dying. But Molly—as the face of the family—has to confront well-intentioned questioning by the community, too:
Last month Molly began trying out a new line. With a little wave and a grin, as if she were apologizing for an overgrown lawn or unpainted shutter, she’d say, You should pity us who have no faith. We’re lonely and anxious. A few women took her seriously and suggested she try their church. The hippest ones forced a burst of air through their noses to indicate they weren’t too old for irony. The rest gave a one-sided, closed-lip smile, as close to a sneer as forty-year-old mothers get. Molly knows it’s time for a new line.
In Ohio, where it’s clear that almost everyone around Molly’s family believes in something, the family has to confront their decisions head-on, more so than they would have in California. But Gustine juxtaposes their struggle against that of another family—a Christian one—who adopted a son from South America and can’t seem to help him assimilate or even relate to his new community. “You Should Pity Us Instead” shows us how nothing is just one thing, and it represents the kind of nuance that makes Gustine’s work so good. Even non-belief is a belief system.
Many of the stories in You Should Pity Us Instead are family stories. Dysfunctional families, yes, and completely ordinary in their dysfunction. Gustine’s families, in several incarnations, provide readers with a type of emotional shorthand. The family unit comes with expectations about both roles and interconnectedness—for characters and readers alike. Gustine subverts these nicely in “Unattended,” “Coyote,” “The River Warta,” and “When We’re Innocent”. Often, Gustine’s stories are conceived by painting her characters into corners. This works well in her stories because her characters reveal themselves when their hands are forced. Ideas about obligation, parenthood, responsibility, self-care, and ethics rise out of the constraints of each character’s life. In “The River Warta,” Caroline, a Polish immigrant, comes to America:
It was only after Caroline escaped to America and had to consider what she herself could expect from life—just another foreigner with a strange accent whose education and family lineage meant nothing—that she had begun to understand the seed of her parents’ bitterness and resentment toward one another. And now, in the time she’s had to think since Frederick died, had she finally found a single word for it: humiliation.
Gustine’s stories work because they hinge on the subtlest slights in each character’s life. They show—in the way the best short stories do—that even small pain can transform a personality. “I have a liking for lost causes,” one of her characters reads from a slip of paper she’s taped up in her house. “They require an uncontaminated soul equal to its defeat as to its temporary victories.” Gustine, too, shows affection for lost causes in her writing. Though her stories represent vastly different time periods and structures, each reveals either the creation or the disillusionment of a lost cause. These are heavy stories, but they are true representations of the absurdity of being alive. As a genre, novels seem to get closer to the act of empathy, they mimic relationships. Short stories, when done well—as Gustine’s—feel more in line with philosophy, the what-ifs. Gustine pokes at the most uncomfortable human emotions, and she does it well.
In addition to examining the family unit, Gustine’s work is acutely aware of loneliness; her characters can’t get what they want, so they go to extreme lengths to soothe themselves. They regularly illustrate Democritus’ adage that too much of any sweet thing becomes bitter. In their efforts to assuage their fears—whether fears of inadequacy, as in “Goldene Medien,” or being beholden to the legal system as in “Half-Life,” characters fall prey to their basest instincts. There is a constant sense of unease in Gustine’s work; her characters live in discomfort that drives their action. In “Prisoners Do,” a stroke leaves Fawn, Mike’s wife, a shell. A solid family man, Mike takes care of her and their children, but he has an affair with Shayla out of his deep need for companionship. One night he leaves to get soda, and returns to find Shayla home with his wife. “For a disturbingly long moment the sight of Shayla’s car outside his house sent a bolt of pleasure through Mike. For a disturbingly long moment he forgot she shouldn’t be here and didn’t even consider why, most likely, she’d come.” As a caregiver for Fawn, Mike is diligent, constantly on-call, and careful. But his situation is impossible. He, like so many of Gustine’s characters, makes bad choices out of sheer need. In “Half-Life,” Sarah acts as a nanny to the daughter of a judge who took her away from her own mother. Sarah’s desire is to wound the judge closest to his heart, but as she takes on the job of caring for the children, that becomes more complex than she originally thinks. Gustine once again pits her characters against their own expectations.
The reader’s relationship with any of the characters in You Should Pity Us Instead is brief, but Gustine writes them in such a way that we feel their moral dilemmas deeply. There are no easy answers or right choices in Gustine’s work, which is why this collection succeeds. Each story is an opportunity, and the constraints Gustine places on her characters allow them to both rise and fall in their decision-making. You Should Pity Us Instead is refreshing in terms of its historical diversity. Gustine’s stories represent many voices and time periods. But the tie that binds these stories is suffering: acute suffering becomes central to each character’s being, and Gustine makes clear how little it takes to alter the course of a life. Characters in these stories have to live on the smallest crumbs of hope; sometimes that hope is grown out of resentment, yet often it is the hope that they will be able to start anew, to put the past behind them or to get things under control once and for all. Gustine, cruel but crafty, gives them a taste of satisfaction before taking it away. This makes for great stories.
Heather Scott Partington’s writing appears at The Los Angeles Times, Ploughshares’ Blog, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She is a contributor to Goodreads Voice, Las Vegas Weekly, Electric Literature, and The Rumpus. Heather lives in Elk Grove, California, with her husband and two kids.