The stories that make up Elizabeth Kadetsky’s excellent debut collection are diverse, but they also have commonalities. They are set all over the world—New York City, Portland, India, Guatemala—and in a variety of environments—the Manhattan bike messenger world, an Indian antique shop, a cross-country road trip—but their protagonists all share a longing to connect. Sometimes this longing is for a child, but other times it is for a romantic or spiritual relationship. The stories, which revolve around calamities large and small, also share a quiet darkness.
In the collection’s opening story, “An Incident at the Plaza,” Maria has maternal longings that begin when she sees a frog try to escape its watery confinement at a New York City Chinatown seafood shop, only to be caught and returned to captivity. “From that instant forward she felt a need become palpable. She needed a child, needed one like a lost child at a fair needed a mother.” She proceeds to get pregnant, deceiving her current lover, thinking a baby is what she’s longing for. When her need persists and she grows increasingly unhinged, she sets her sights on a frolicking toddler in the park.
A woman’s longing for a child arises in the next story, too. “Loup Garou” is about a couple from Portland, Morey and Cecile, who begin a cross-country drive. Because of childhood cancer, Morey can’t or won’t have children. On the road, Cecile, who thinks she might want to be a writer, begins to compose a short story in her head “about a couple who set off on vacation hoping to resolve a disagreement about whether to have a child.” In her story, overcoming her husband’s objections, the wife expresses a willingness to adopt, but, instead, a child appears “miraculously” by the side of the road. Morey dismisses her story idea as lacking the necessary heroic elements, and the reader senses that their relationship is doomed, although this story, like most in the collection, concludes with a tantalizing non-resolution.
Several of the stories take place in India, including the title story, which earned a Pushcart Prize for Kadetsky. In “The Poison that Purifies You,” a young American has come to India to escape the “sterile . . . painted landscape” of California. Jack actually wants to become part of the continent: “He will let India deep inside him. The squalor of India will become a part of him, so much so that it has lost the power to make him feel dirty.” Although the dirt has no power over him, he is intrigued when a young Indian man, Rohit, informs him that microbes from the air fall into a water bottle, no matter how briefly the cap is removed. Jack, who is gay, finds Rohit attractive, and so accepts his invitation to visit his village. The two men do seem to connect and have much to discuss, but Rohit is not what he seems, and Jack finds himself in an awkward and perilous situation.
One of my favorite stories in the collection, “The Indian Friend,” is also set in India. A group of expatriate friends gathers and shares outrageous stories about what they’ve seen in India, along with negative comments about the locals. “Indians’ll eat their own,” says one of the worst offenders, Brian. Marcus is uncomfortable with these stories because of the presence of Rajesh, his Indian friend who has brought the group to an excellent food stall in Old Delhi. “Marcus wished his friends would be more polite to Rajesh, who after all had taken an afternoon off work to bring them here.” But Rajesh gets the last laugh when he tells the group a story about a foreigner and a monkey that embarrasses pompous Brian.
And two very different stories are set against the backdrop of an earthquake—one in Guatemala and one in New York City. In “It Was Only Clay” Joseph arrives in Guatemala to scavenge for objects that may have emerged from the ground following a recent earthquake. Upon arrival, he stops taking his anti-depressant medication, something he hasn’t done for ten years. Between his mood swings and the danger of his looting valuable artifacts, Joseph finds himself in some danger—real or imagined. “What We Saw” takes place in the aftermath of a recent East Coast quake that rattled New York City and seems to have called forth bugs, mice, discarded furniture, and crazy neighbors. The narrator also puzzles over the apparent disappearance of her twin sister, Melody, while coping with this new plague.
The overall effect of these gloomy, open-ended stories is to suggest that longing is a perpetual element of the human condition. Which is not to say that happiness is out of reach. But, like Jack in the collection’s title story, we gain power over our disappointments by ingesting them and making them part of us. Despite the darkness, The Poison that Purifies You is a fine book that serious readers will find deeply satisfying.
Elizabeth Kadetsky is the author of a memoir, First There Is a Mountain, and a novella, On the Island at the Center of the Center of the World.
Clifford Garstang is the Editor of Prime Number Magazine.