Hungry Heart Review – Ray Greenblatt

A Review of THE HUNGRY HEART, written by: Ray Greenblatt, Wayne, Pennsylvania

 Ray Greenblatt has lived in New England, the West Indies, and along the Eastern Shore. He has written short stories, essays, and poetry which have been published across the U.S. in periodicals as diverse as America, English Journal, and Joseph Conrad Today. He was nominated for the Pushcart Prize twice and won the Anthony Byrne Prize. He was also  editor of the magazine General Eclectic. A teacher for many years Ray Greenblatt has taught writing in the Philadelphia Writers Conference as well as spoken at the John Steinbeck Festival in Salinas, California.“ 
by Fran Metzman
(Wilderness House Press, 2012)

 In her new collection of short stories, Fran Metzman proves that she is a daring experimenter. Most of her stories deal with contemporary issues that surge daily through the media; from family relationships (My Inheritance) to black-white relationships (Reunion) to white collar fraud (Dinner).

 Most of the stories are told from a third person point-of-view with a  woman as the major character. In “Dinner with the Mob” a woman speaks for herself. In “The Right Seasoning” a man takes the stage to reveal his  development.  One story Metzman places smack dab in our “City of Brotherly Love” with references to: Montgomery Avenue, the Main Line, the University of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Orchestra, West Philly, Center City Philadelphia.

 Her genres vary too. “Dinner with the Mob” is nearly Theater of the Absurd with so many of the guests at a posh dinner party having served time and crowing about it. “The Invisible Wife”  is Surrealism since the ex-wife secretly lives in her ex-husband’s attic to observe him with his new wife. “The Right Seasoning” grows into Comic Horror as a widower recaptures his wife’s essence by using her ashes as seasoning in his cooking.  It reminds me of Roald Dahl’s story “The Landlady” in which a traveling salesman has tea—which tastes peculiar—with the sweet old landlady then discovers upstairs embalmed tenants who were poisoned.

 Metzman is skilled in choosing just the right wording to fit the storyline. Her imagery is striking: “He put himself right out there, allowing her scathing words to claw his soul.” (Redemption). “She goes to a dermatologist who pumps poison into her face until she looks like a dolphin.” (The Early Bird Special) “A thickening silence bound Andrea in place.” (The Girls from Mapleton)

 Entire paragraphs vibrate with meaning.  In “The Girls from Mapleton” Chris tries to deny that her friend’s preacher father seduced her as a child: “Her voice pushed out against some invisible force that tried to silence her. Once the words were out they seemed to spin and then hang in the air menacingly. Chris produced  a tube of orange lipstick that matched her nails. In three broad strokes her lips became vibrant but refused to open to emit sound.” In “Christmas in August” an old boy friend wants to force himself back into Nancy’s life: “Now she sensed he wanted to backfill the void of the last four years to make it firm enough to walk across. It set her even more on edge and she began babbling about her graphic design job and how she’d been made director of the department. When a  hole appeared in her monologue, she plugged it with giggles.  The calmer he appeared, the faster she talked. She felt feverish.” Finally Nancy realizes that Curtis had always been and is still just trying to use her: “It was as though Curtis had placed a bookmark before the last chapter of a thrilling book when he left, and now she had read the disturbing conclusion. The book was closed, and she had a sense of peace.”

 As we can see, Metzman can be a mesmerizer in her word usage. Here she probes even more deeply into psychological depths. “She told herself to sit and listen to how she herself continued the legacy of repressing emotions” and “My head woke up too late. It forgot my body is nearly dead.” (The Early Bird Special) An inanimate object becomes a forbidding thing: “She recalled with repugnance that the plaster walls in that evil house had absorbed the smell of chicken soup that Barbara’s mother cooked twice a week.” (The Girls from Mapleton) Metzman’s insights into human nature are telling: from “Poverty doesn’t equate to a bad childhood” (Reunion) to “They both knew her body language had always been an open window to her interior landscape” (Christmas in August); until Metzman puts her finger on a real secret of happiness though rendered maniacally—“A craving to find something she lost or never owned overwhelmed her. She intended to teach Bruce the real meaning of love, offer her larger house for them to live in, share her inheritance with him. Other women offered sex which many men interpreted as love. She offered love.” (Myra’s garden).

 Although we’ve been getting hints of it, we shouldn’t overlook Metzman’s sense of humor, even in serious situations. “The Right Seasoning” is an especially fascinating and starkly funny story. Charles loved his wife Ruth and her cooking. “Food had fulfilled him, rounding his belly and marking events in his life, much like keeping a diary.”  He even thinks of a meat thermometer in a new way. “How nice if he had such an instrument to gauge his emotional health on any given day.” Meals became more and more special. “He had the notion that these sumptuous dinners coated their vital organs like a buffer against disease and that they’d live forever.”

Unexpectedly Ruth dies. “Pleasant dreams turned into a repetitive nightmare of a four foot tongue, lashing at the tasteless air.” He tries to recapture the magic. ”Each brick  seemed old and tired now, but once a week the kitchen came to life when he started the fire.” Memories return to him. “Rose, in her crisp, white apron had always created multi-colored hues round herself; vermilion filled the room when she cooked red sauces, dots of purple spun through the air when she stuffed  eggplants.”

Soon his grief has created a  fantasy around Donna, his next door neighbor who is nothing like Ruth. “When she wasn’t looking, he inhaled the faintest scent of rosemary from a sundress. Tears burned his eyes.”  Eventually Donna transforms into Ruth. “Soon Donna’s   nose took on a girth and her eyes went to ink black. A beauty mark appeared on Donna’s newly olive-toned cheek, and her pencil thin, skim milk colored mouth swelled and shaded into terra-cotta. Heat rose from his skin and his knees buckled. He wanted to shout out his wife’s name, but contained himself.”

Two stories I want to focus on because for me they are the most powerful in the collection. “Getting Close” has ties to “The Right Seasoning” with the theme of food common to both; you might also observe that their endings “go over the top.” Yet “Getting Close” offers so many dynamically memorable truths.

The story opens dramatically: “The scent of earthy root coming from a pot of potatoes boiling on the stove invades my nostrils.”  Things are not well between the two women: “Our relationship was on the brink of total extinction, and I saw this as the last chance to rebuild an endangered species—mother and daughter.” Food again becomes larger than itself: “Parboiling, braising, steaming, sautéing, roasting and frying are sacred rituals.”

 The mother holds so many demons inside: “Now I sense that she is searching through her unending bag of torturous comments she has on the ready for me”; “It scares me to look at her and see my future.” Another symbol: “Beside the window is her blue wing chair that retains the shape of her. It is the saddest chair I have ever seen”; “melancholy oozed into every inch of space in the apartment until it bulged at the seams.” The mother moans:  “It’s a cry of mournful horns blown on mountaintops for the dead,  for lost love, sickness, evil and torment”; “I don’t have the courage to walk into her deadly radiation zone.”

In an act of defiance mixed with appeasement, the daughter tries to accept the only thing her mother has openly offered: “I stand at the dividing archway between the kitchen and the living room holding a ball of dough. I fling it against the wall. It flattens, clings for a  moment then plops to the floor. Strangely, the sound makes me want to giggle.  Looking up, I see my mother in a violent blur. She’s banging her head against the wall with a rapid, steady beat …She wails and calls to God to end her miserable life.”

“Ripping away the coverings, I begin stuffing food in my mouth. My mother stops her head banging rituals and watches me, a stunned look on her face. I wash down the chicken with a turkey leg, and then break off a piece of baked potato and smash it into my mouth. I gobble half a loaf of bread. Filling a tall glass with water, I slurp it, forcing my impacted food down my throat.” Inevitably, “there is a furious protest from my stomach, and I rush to the bathroom. Falling to my knees, I cling to the toilet bowl and retch. Like a punch to my gut I vomit nearly choking on the volume.” Yet nothing is really solved between them.

In the final story I wish to discuss, Metzman’s opening story “My Inheritance,” the mother is older, more withdrawn, actually dying from cancer. Reference to food and wild displays of emotion are absent. Again, the opening is powerful: “My mother is dying. There are shuffling noises overhead coming from her bedroom. She has cancer, and her death is imminent. I am her only child.  We never liked each other.”  Then both women are partially revealed: “Her belongings are like her emotions; meager and held tight to her body, like the empty pocketbook she takes to bed each night. Neither of us can live freely. That became only too clear to me after my two marriages failed. Still, I’ve decided that we will have some kind of solution before she goes even if it kills me, too. It looks as though it might.”

It seems the sole nourishment between them is a special tea: “Without my mother knowing, I fix us marijuana-laced tea every night. It helps her sleep, eases nausea and calms my nerves. She brightens. ‘That’s really good tea.’” Metzman digs more deeply in this story: “Unanswered questions rattle in my mind like bingo balls whirling in mesh cages. I picture the cage stopping and the winning ball rolling into the cup. It has my father’s name on it.  I only saw him three times since he left.” Her mother finally confesses: “I’m angry because you remind me of your father. No backbone to either one of you. And your face is exactly like his. It’s like looking at his glazed eyes that never saw me. And, oh my God, when I see your full mouth, always pouting, I only see him. Just looking at you makes my bones hurt.” 

That’s the amount of closure we get, and as real human beings we can feel for both characters on this page. “I tuck her into bed, lean over and kiss her cheek. It feels like disintegrating old newspaper.” No exaggerations, no gimmicks, not a wasted word. With incisive use of dialogue, these last two stories discussed are told in an intimate first person . Metzman’s writing style has deepened so that it shimmers, speaks truth, and affects us emotionally.

In a Postscript of my own, I would like to comment on Ms Metzman’s short Afterward called “Writing and Healing.” A reader or indeed writer can learn a lot from this brief chapter about the dynamics of an author in the process of creating her stories. Yet as I sit here, still with a hungry heart, I do not think of sugar plum fairies. Dancing through my head, due to Fran Metzman’s vivid writing, I daydream about knishes, kugel, blintzes, latkes …

Ray Greenblatt
Wayne, Pennsylvania