Women Up On Blocks by Mary Akers
Reviewed by Stephen Page
The female protagonists in Mary Akers’s collection of short stories, Women Up On Blocks, live male dominated lives. They feel trapped, yet are in the situations they are in because of decisions that they made during certain periods of their lives.
The first story, Medusa Song, begins as a story of child neglect:
She scrambles the eggs while the baby howls at her knees. To drown out the racket, she hums and jabs the fork into the yolks… then does a quick sidestep when the baby lunges for her knees.
His little fat hands grasp the air, throwing him off balance. He totters on his heels for a moment then sits hard and rolls back sideways, bumping his head on the floor. He stops crying abruptly and flails his arms in the air like a bug stuck on its back.
The neglect continues: “She’s barely gotten the toast buttered when John Junior starts up again. He’s poopy, she can see it rimming the edges of his diaper… she carries him out to the pickup and puts him squish onto the seat.” The mother-narrator of this story, whose name is Cynthia, justifies her behavior by blaming it on her husband’s possible infidelity: “Cynthia can’t remember when things changed. Maybe it was when she suspected John of sleeping with his secretary.” By telling the story in the third-person, Cynthia can distance herself from her own monstrosity. She lets the reader know she was wrong for neglecting the child. Cynthia notes that she was submissive to her husband before the baby was born: “John and she never fought before. Well, sometimes, but it was always more of a disagreement and once Cynthia apologized, it would be over.” Cynthia, in another attempt to defend her actions and plead forgiveness from the reader, confesses that she was not always a child neglector: “She used to love her life . . . She used to love the feeling of everyone needing her so badly . . . And when the baby fell asleep, she would sit and hold him just as long as he would sleep.”
Another story, “Mooncalf,” begins with the frightening first line, “How you recognize a monster is dependent upon how you view normality.” “Mooncalf” is the tale of Siren, an intelligent woman with cerebral palsy. While she is at college, she believes she is blessed when she meets and marries Chris, a man whom she perceives as good-natured. Soon after they are married, Chris begins to reveal his true character-even when Siren, who speaks in the first person, denies the existence of his temperament, saying, “In our early marriage, I spent my days struggling to fix Chris’s meals . . . Chris almost never fussed.” Then they have a colicky baby whom they name Jonah (apt because of the wailing). Chris’s reaction to Jonah’s constant crying is this (speaking to Siren): “Please don’t misunderstand . . . I know he is a precious gift . . . But some days I wish it were just you and me, like it used to be.” O.K. Reasonably, what parent has not thought this very same thought at least once in his or her early marriage? But not every parent voices this thought, and if one does, the thought usually passes as soon as the words are uttered. Chris’s words are a narrative tactic to reveal more of his character, and a foreshadowing technique. Near the end of the story, we find out just what Chris is made of, when in the middle of the night, as Jonah is crying in the other room and Chris is pacing the floors of the house because he cannot sleep, Siren tells the reader:
I awakened, suddenly to the sound of Chris speaking again. His cadence and tone were strange. His voice was breathy and frantic, and held an edge of panic, “Stopstop- stop-stop-stop-stop-stop!” he said. Jonah’s cries stilled and I heard the side of the crib go back up . . . I lay there listening hard in the stillness and staring at the blackness of the ceiling. An uneasy feeling curled itself around my insides and tightened.
In the story “Wholesale,” a late-adolescent girl with addictive behaviors runs away from home and an alcoholic father. She becomes a drug-addicted young woman and allows men to sexually abuse her in return for her fix. The main character uses drugs and men use her. Akers probably added this story as an allegory-that for some women, attraction to abusive men is an addiction in itself.
The women protagonists in Mary Akers’s stories live in worlds dominated by imperfect men, but they are not perfect characters themselves since they chose to be who they are. They are controlled by “monsters,” but they have become monsters. Yes, they are victims of circumstance, but they are not quick to choose behavioral change or a way out when they are in cognitive dissonance. Akers sums up the collection in this quote from “Wholesale”: ” . . . life can be hell. But also that our choices keep us there, or free us from it, according to our actions.”
Readers will empathize with this book because the “monster” lives inside all of us. Good people keep that monster in check. Readers will also relate to this book because everyone has had at least one bad relationship in his or her life, or gone through a rough period in his or her long-term relationship. Akers writes well-her dialogue and situations are realistic, she wastes no words, her metaphors are aptly used; she applies good hooks, good foreshowing, good character development; her stories are devastating, stark, not obvious; she has a large, non-pretentious vocabulary; she captures the voice of each character according to his or her socialization and education; she knows just what information is needed and which is not for the reader to comprehend the intent of the story; and she knows how to start and end a story. Group all of these strengths together, and the result is a writer who knows how to write a short story. Akers’s can be ranked with Proulx, Hemingway, Carver, and Cheever.
This book is available online at Press 53 at www.press53.com, and at Amazon.com. Akers maintains a Web site, www.maryakers.com, where her biography can be found, as well as a blog atwww.maryakers.blogspot.com.