A Review of Charlatan

Toni Jensen
Cris Mazza
Chicago, IL: Curbside Splendor Publishing, 2017.
320 pages. $17.95 (paperback)

Charlatan, a compilation of Cris Mazza’s stories, features characters who range from high school band students to out of work husbands, from musicians to teenage mothers, from waitresses to engineers — all sharing the bonds of desire and dissatisfaction. Throughout her career, Mazza’s work often has been read as “disturbing” or “volatile” or “provocative” and always as innovative. In 2018, the innovation stands. The stories balance light with dark, humor with violence, and all provide surprises in their observations on sex, sexuality, and relationships.

The compilation offers stories from the full range of Mazza’s career, structured in chronological order. Despite the range of publication dates, from 1979-2013, the compilation feels as if it holds a unity through time, as well as through innovation. Roughly half the stories were published in the 1980s, and many of the recent stories also use the ‘80s as timeframe, as set piece. In many ways, though the stories use the particularity of the ‘80s timeframe well, their ideas also transcend time and place.

It’s difficult to highlight particular stories because all are excellent, but the ones emphasized here all stand out. “Is It Sexual Harassment Yet?” and “The Family Bed,” for example, are as relevant and necessary today — in their contents and forms — as they were revelatory in the ‘80s. In the later stories, “My Husband’s Best Friend” and “Twister Party,” also display the highest level of immediacy and care in the writing.

The most interesting, timely story, though, is Mazza’s “Is It Sexual Harassment Yet?” published in 1988. The story marries an adventurous form with a complex conversation about sex, attraction, violence, language, and the shifting permutations of their boundaries or borders. The two main characters, Terence Lovell and Michelle Rae, each narrate the story; Terence’s section is told through close third person and Michelle’s in first person. The story’s pages are split into columns. Where each scene starts or stops within the column works to establish the power dynamics, where the borders are set.

The story begins with Terence, the Imperial Penthouse restaurant’s floor captain who has been accused of sexual harassment by Michelle, a waitress. Though in many multiple point of view stories, the beginning choice sets the focus of the whole, Mazza’s choice offers more nuance. Terence’s voice begins and ends the story but is cast in close third person. Michelle’s sections, filtered through the first person, deliver immediacy.

The first lines from Michelle’s character begin: “I know they’re going to ask about my previous sexual experiences. What counts as sexual? Holding hands? Wet kisses? A finger up my ass? Staring at a man’s bulge? He wore incredibly tight pants” (121). Michelle’s first lines are set in a column on the right side of the page, side by side with the left-hand column containing the following lines from Terence: “It was six to eight months prior to Terence’s purchase of the gun that the restaurant began to integrate waitresses into the personnel” (121).

The columns work to separate the characters’ vastly different takes on what has transpired at the restaurant — on who is falling in love with or harassing whom — so they serve as physical and emotional demarcation between the narratives. The border doesn’t offer a tidy solution to the questions of blame and accountability, though, or offer definitive answers to who might be telling the truth. All those notions are beside the point. By the story’s end, it’s clear Mazza doesn’t so much work toward tearing down a boundary or border as she points to it, declares it a site, showcases its beauty and ugliness, its shadow and light, its many tensions. Readers are not pointed this way or that. They are left with the rare, true pleasure of having been led to the site, to the moment, and then allowed the full range of choice.

The collection’s shortest story “My Husband’s Best Friend” delivers a similar split perspective, but in the frame of a cohesive, one-page story. Published in 2002, the story begins: “She ordered meatball soup. There was one meatball. I said it was a bull testicle. I couldn’t ruin her appetite. We were there to talk about ….” (201). Instead of split columns and perspectives, the story uses patterning to give the sides of the relationship and its trajectory. The way the sentences start — she, there was, I, and we — is a pattern followed throughout the story. “There was,” offers the notion of objectivity, and the we offers the suggestion of inclusion, which holds the potential for a happy ending. The story’s smart construction makes good use of Mazza’s signature humor throughout, as well. It’s a master class on storytelling in fewer than 300 words.

In both “The Family Bed,” published in 1984, and “Twister Party,” published in 2013, the transitions in time and with objects are used to convey characters’ relationships and longings. Dale, the main character in “The Family Bed,” is fighting with his family over a board game and has just lost his job. At the party he finds while walking his neighborhood, he doesn’t seem to know he’s seeking a connection outside his family’s house, outside himself, but by the end he finds himself humming and realizes it’s “The Tennessee Waltz,” which is the song another character had hummed earlier in the story. He leaves the party humming, only to return with the board game as offering. “Twister Party” functions similarly and centers around a birthday party turned strange, as filtered through the voice of the celebrant’s stepfather, who doesn’t love the girl’s mother and can’t get past his fleeting relationship with another woman years past. Time is both fixed through the dates — 1981, 1995 — and fluid through his remembrances. In both stories, the narrators’ regret is made palpable through how time moves, how the characters’ bodies are stuck in present moment and their minds are longing for either the past or some imagined future.

Even the best compilations of short stories often fall into predictable rhythms, predictable patterns of plot or language or intent. In this collection, Mazza’s consistency comes through the ability to offer excellence and surprise, in turn of phrase and plot, in character development and detail. It’s necessary and vital reading.


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