Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Most Entertaining Evening

On February 8, I attended an event at the Mark Twain House featuring Denis Horgan, a long-time columnist with the Hartford Courant who is now offering his thoughts on life, liberty, and the pursuit of whatever we pursue online. He has also turned his hand to fiction, and the event at the Mark Twain House included a reception beforehand with wine and some very nice munchies, and a book signing afterwards (the museum gift shop conveniently had copies of his latest short story collection Ninety-Eight Point Six...and Other Stories). I bought a copy that night and haven’t finished reading it yet, but based on the short story he read excerpts from – “The English Aisle,” which I have since read myself – I think I will really like the collection. I had expected the evening to consist mostly of Denis reading from one or more of his works, and I was initially a bit disappointed that it wasn’t that way, but my disappointment quickly abated. Instead, he gave a fascinating talk about his life (he was, for example, born in a taxi in Boston during a Thanksgiving snowstorm) and his somewhat complicated path to becoming a writer, a path that life seemed intent on deflecting him from (for example, during his long newspaper career, those in charge kept wanting him to edit and manage, and it took some persuasion on his part to be allowed to continue writing columns).

Among many other things, Denis discussed the motivation for – and obstacles to – what was originally intended as a novel but ultimately became his recent short story collection (he gives a more detailed account of this in the Preface of Ninety-Eight Point Six). Several of these stories deal with different aspects of identity, and the motivation for them was a real-life identity theft. As is often the case, the truth is stranger than fiction here, because the young woman whose identity was stolen had an extremely difficult time convincing anyone to take the problem seriously: the person who had stolen her identity hadn’t done anything bad with it – she got a job, paid her bills and filed her income taxes (this prompted a letter from the IRS to the original owner of the identity about the two conflicting tax returns she had filed). The story reminded me of an incident from a novel (I believe it was Peter Mayle’s Hotel Pastis, but I can’t find my copy just at the moment, so I’m not absolutely certain), where the protagonist’s significant other had had her credit card stolen, but he waited six months to report it because the thief was spending so much less than she was.

It is clear, both from the two stories of Horgan’s that I have read so far and from the things he talked about at the Mark Twain House, that his years in journalism have served him well, honing his eye for the details that convey so much about his characters. For example, in one of his stories, “The Sound of Shadows,” the main character (Patrick) is trying to straighten out his stolen identity after the IRS has called him about his duplicate tax filing (“Frankly, we don’t care who you are so long as you follow the rules, and the rules say one return from one person not two returns from one person or no returns from any person. Do you see that simple symmetry? It is elegant. Smooth. …”). One of the things he does is call the Social Security offices, where he is ultimately able to speak to an actual person, but it isn’t much help:

“No, you are just mistaken. Because it cannot happen, therefore it did not happen. That’s only logical, isn’t it? How can something happen that cannot happen? …”

This incident is particularly hilarious to me because my wife experienced almost exactly the same conversation when we lived in Switzerland, but in a very different context. We were guests of the university I was visiting, and they provided us with a superbly furnished apartment, one that included everything from bed linens (ironed and folded) to salt and pepper shakers. And a checklist. When the housing people stopped by to collect the checklist, my wife noted that the teaspoons didn’t match, as several of them were a different style from the others, with “SwissAir” stamped on the back. The housing guy was nearly speechless, able only to mumble over and over again, “This is not possible. It is not possible.” After a few moments, he was able to regain his composure enough to collect the offensively “impossible” SwissAir spoons, take them away, and replace them with a new, complete set of “possible” spoons.

As I said, I haven’t finished reading Denis Horgan’s collection of short stories yet, but the two samples I have read so far have left me howling with laughter in places, so I plan to finish it soon and will have more to say about it then.