Hurry Please I Want to Know (Sarabande Books 2015)
Review by Jen Corrigan
Patient, meticulous readers will be rewarded. Paul Griner’s depiction of America in his short story collection, Hurry Please I Want to Know, winner of the 2016 Kentucky Literary Award, is, at once, delicate, robust, and familiar, bewildering, exotic, and entirely foreign. While readers may feel disoriented and on uneven footing as they pick through the pieces, I think those who continue on will be pleased with the journey they take through this odd and eerie land of Griner’s unrelenting, unapologetic prose.
Griner’s range as a fiction writer is expansive. He experiments with microfiction, longer pieces, first person and third person narration, characters, places, temporalities, magic realism, traditional narratives. Pinpointing a particular thread, image, voice, or style that ties together these varied stories presents a challenge. While this may create a jarring sense of inconsistency for the reader at first, this grab bag of fiction shorts is ultimately satisfying. If a reader doesn’t feel a connection to one story, she stands a likely chance of being profoundly moved, inspired, or taken aback by the next.
The crowning achievement of Griner’s collection is, without a doubt, the gut-wrenching “On Board the SS Irresponsible,” a story that centers on a father taking his three children on a fishing outing one summer afternoon. The piece explores family dynamics around the rift of divorce, the complex and overlapping relationship of hope and sorrow, and the inescapability of paternal guilt. It is a story that first appears quiet and unassuming, a traditional narrative that is sandwiched in the collection between two flash fiction pieces with experimental flavors; however, this piece, which appears about a third of the way into the collection, has a climatic energy that serves to speed the reader’s pace onward. Not only did I find the story intricate and complex on a purely textual level, it climbed down my throat and made a nest inside my belly, resonated inside my bone marrow and rattled the teeth in my gums; it was all so unexpected. Griner took my readerly expectations and turned them up and over. By forcing my focus onto the significance of a boat through the title and the situation of the family around the vessel, I was unable to predict the arrival of a train, the unapologetic catalyst for the final tragedy of the story. I read the last sentence: “For a few seconds more, he wanted to spare her that knowledge” and my soul ached. I put down the book, exhaled, and gave thanks I had not gone my whole life without reading it. Picking up this collection is worth it if only to read just this one story.
Part of what characterizes Griner’s range as a writer is his ability to suture together the comedy and the tragedy that so often appear alongside one another in life. What makes the prose itself especially elegant is the way in which he takes chaos and loss and places them so easily within the controlled structure of his narratives. After drawing the reader into and out of a sense of comfort with “On Board the SS Irresponsible,” his stories begin to thematically fade into subtlety and quietude, but never relief. The crux of “Separate Love” is the beauty and sadness of fleeting relationships, of reaching out and trying to be a bit less alone. An older woman, Gwynn, meets handsome Terry at a grocery store while buying mustard and attends a local dog show in hopes of running into him again. “Loneliness,” Griner writes, “was a terrible gnawing thing that age only intensified.” By means of the carefully selected diction, Gwynn, a nice-looking but otherwise unremarkable woman, is juxtaposed against the painstakingly and purposefully bred dogs that are much more beautiful to Terry. Griner respects but does not coddle his readers; the collection he assembles is one that is deliberately uneven, forcing the reader in and out of vastly different worlds over and over again, but Griner holds faith that his reader will keep up. Most importantly, Griner has an intense compassion for his characters even as he manipulates them into an emotional space of touching, overlapping, and becoming, once again, sorrowful strangers.
Not all of Griner’s stories in Hurry Please I Want to Know affected me as did these I mentioned. Some pieces are so esoterically crafted that they may resonate solely with the author or readers who have an inside look into the narrative. Others I forgot after I closed the book. However, I think this collection, with its diverse nature and broad scope, contains a story for every reader, a story that echoes one’s regretful humanity, a story that will make the reader, at least one time, close her eyes and exhale.
Jen Corrigan is a graduate student and instructor at the University of Northern Iowa, and former editorial intern at the North American Review. Her prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Heather; Apocrypha and Abstractions; The Gambler; Change Seven Magazine; Hypertext Magazine; Cease, Cows; and elsewhere. She serves as a jury member for Mash Stories. Visit her at jencorrigan.wordpress.com.