If you’re a regular reader of The Masters Review, you may remember a story we published back in March: “Stay” by Zachary Amendt. The piece explores the relationship between married couple Marti and Aldo, as it centers on Marti’s inherited baseball collectables. We watch as the relationship is tested and eventually fails — but not without a well-earned dramatic ending involving a wildfire. We loved the piece because of Amendt’s incisive character work, flair for the use of artifact, and careful phrasing, all of which added up to a powerful story. Well, we’re excited to say that “Stay” is the title story in Amendt’s new collection, available from Montag Press, and the other eight stories included live up to its high standard.
The collection is focused around San Francisco’s East Bay, and the people who live and love and fight and struggle there. A lot of the stories also include baseball, and while I’m not a huge fan of the sport, I found its inclusion fitting. There’s something about the American mythos that makes baseball very poignant, even if you’ve never set foot in a ballpark, and the sport underpinned the emotionality and themes of the work well.
One of the standout stories (other than “Stay”), was “Man of Merritt,” about a widower in a custody battle with his deceased wife’s parents over his daughter, Vida Blue. He eventually kidnaps Vida Blue (named for the ball player), and takes her on a tour of America’s ballparks, dodging APBs to catch one-hitters at Turner Field.
Amendt’s skillful voice comes through in lines like these: “Grief isn’t flammable. It won’t catch. I don’t have to conceal the fracture from Vida Blue, she can’t see it, it’s like those Adlibs she loves, you don’t know your father shouldn’t have a ___(noun)___ where his ___(verb)___ used to be.”
He also succeeds in crystallizing an image, or even two, in each story, and somehow, however outlandish they may be, each story earns it. In the opening story, “Town Business,” the bereaved parents of a murdered teenager are held at gunpoint by his grieving friends while at their anniversary dinner. In “Fourth Bore,” a food truck hurtles purposefully on a collision course with the competition, and a young girl carefully spells out “C-u-n-t-s,” at a spelling bee after being disqualified on a technicality. And in “Two Iota,” a herd of fainting goats is literally scared to death.
The stories also seem to get progressively more experimental as the collection wears on; by the time you hit “Barbasol Meringue,” where the character of Vida Blue returns as an adult who acts as the handler to an A.I. actor, it’s almost Kelly Link territory. The final story in the collection, “Q & A’s,” is actually a short play about a play, written in conversation between the assistant, the producer, and the actor. It’s the ideal coda, winding the collection down to a slow, thoughtful pace and ending on an entirely appropriate line: “Stay in.”
That is, essentially, what Amendt is asking the reader to do in this collection: stay in the story, in the moment, as it wends through the East Bay and the ballparks, in order to find insight into race, class, how the American dream actually works in practice, and the individual lives entangled in it. Amendt’s strong characterization blends line-by-line with his punchy, inventive sentences to craft an outstanding debut collection that achieves the dramatic without the melodramatic.
Perhaps the strangest and highest recommendation I can give is that the collection reads like an East Bay Flannery O’ Connor, albeit with a bit more modernist flair. We’re immensely proud to have published Zachary Amendt, and judging from this collection, we can expect more excellent work from him in the future.
Pub date: June 16th, 2014
Publisher: Montag Press
Reviewed by Arielle Yarwood