Gravy, by Ron Singer. (Unsolicited Press, 2020)
The Promised End, by Ron Singer. (Unsolicited Press, 2019)
Earlier this year, I had a chance to review two recent books by frequent Avatar Review contributor Ron Singer.
Gravy was published most recently, in 2020, but it’s the one I started reading first, so I’ll start my review with this one too.
On first reading Gravy I was immediately struck by how true it is to its own sense of purpose. As Singer writes in the dedication, this is a book “[d]edicated to the old, and to the old at heart.” Aging, then, is obviously a big theme in Gravy. But it’s not just a book about aging; it’s about what aging does: how people are changed by the process of aging (or not changed), and how the mere fact of “being old” can really color the way others perceive us (often unfairly). It’s a big theme to tackle, but I have to say that Singer tackles it well. With gusto, in fact.
I like the way Singer kicks things off in the book’s first story, “Secrets of the Boardwalk:”
IT ALL STARTED when Bob’s wife, Amy, told my wife, Liz, her confidante, that she was worried about her husband. On two consecutive days he had, uncharacteristically, wandered off alone. The first morning, out of the blue, he had announced his intention of taking the day off and riding the subway out to Coney Island, “for a walk on the boardwalk.”
The story goes on to reveal the reason for Bob’s wandering (I won’t give it away here). But it’s more or less a cautionary tale: there is some misbehavior and some embarrassment–although luckily for Bob, things work out in the end.
There is a lot of good humor in this book, and also a lot of poignancy. Gravy features narrators and protagonists who are not afraid to laugh at themselves, and each other. The characters are by and large of an older generation–those who have arrived at their “gravy” years. They are seventy-something, eighty-something. Most have ended their working years and are looking for new ways to fill their time. They’re a little apprehensive about the future maybe, but (perhaps surprisingly) not often lonely. There is one exception, I guess–the lonely upstairs neighbor in “Reader, I Read to Him”–but statistically, that is an outlier. Singer’s characters are for the most part highly active, social creatures.
Gravy is largely set in urban landscapes, New York City in particular. Its characters are (or were) teachers and professionals, accountants, businesspeople. And writers. (Singer himself is in there too, a bunch.) A good bit of the conversation revolves around the characters’ professions and careers (for some of them this consists in reminiscing) but also there is much talk about hobbies, current interests. What people do when they’re done working. As a a member of the generation just behind “gravy,” I found this to be a pretty good object lesson–and a reminder to get back in the gym. There is a lot to look forward to, after all.
Life in Gravy is not without worry, of course. Some unfair things happen. We see people forced into retirement, treated with condescension, losing friends and acquaintances to death. But amid these all-too-real misfortunes, Singer’s characters manage to exhibit an amazing amount of positivity. They have fun. Singer, for all his protestations, must surely be a kid at heart (just as much as he is old at heart–or wants us to assume he is for the duration of the book). There is so much whimsy in these pages. Consider this exchange, which opens the story, “The Dictator Confronted by the Magus”:
“HOW THE HELL did you get in here?” The Dictator groped for the buzzer beneath his desk, almost pressing the red nuclear button instead.
“Don’t bother,” said the intruder, a tall man dressed in the gray hooded robe of a Dominican friar. “It isn’t working. Besides, I’m not here to harm you. My purpose is to try to lift the cloud of unknowing in which you grope out your days.”
“‘Cloud of…what? Who the hell are you?” demanded the Dictator, rubbing his bald head. “And who sent you?”
“I am sure you have never heard of me,” he said. “My name is Giordano Bruno da Nola. In life, I was a Magus.”
I can almost image the author rubbing his hands together with glee as he wrote that.
Stylistically, Gravy is reminiscent of an old time radio play, or (perhaps more relatable to modern audiences) a podcast. The narrator/author is supremely present. As such, I don’t think you can define Gravy as “just” as collection of stories. Rather, it reads as a whole. There are prefaces, postscripts, often a moral, then a story, now a poem. In this, we regularly see Singer (the ultimate narrator) dipping his toes in and out of the fictional stream. Interjecting. Telling us. It’s a risky move, perhaps. To some, it might seem off-putting. (“I just read that really cool story and now you are going to interrupt me to say, what?”) But this is also a way to pull us back. To remind us: there is a who.
Gravy is divided into five sections. The first four sections (Accountancy, Books, Activism, and Families (1): Surrogate) are comprised of a series of vignettes, interspersed with some other, more experimental pieces (not forgetting of course, the poems, asides, etc. ). I find the stories to be quite entertaining. They’re often colored with an element of noir, and/or mystery. There’s often a puzzle, a disappearance, a case to solve. For example, in “Other People’s Clothes,” we follow along as the protagonist tries to work out the mystery of his stolen gym clothes (said mystery is ultimately solved, at least for the reader). One story, “The Actuarialist,” is full of puzzles–literal “problems” I guess. Another story, “Dante’s Way” (also about an Actuary), is a fascinating revenge story. Other memorable examples include “The Printed Word” (about a phony translator); “The Tigers of Yerevan” (a ghost story, of sorts); and “The Parents We Deserve (Part One)” (about a young couple who “adopt” replacement parents after their own pass away).
The last section of Gravy is called Families (2): Actual. This the longest section in the book, and the most poignant. It’s also the most openly autobiographical (the last piece in this section, “Ranu M’Zooka,” is actually described as a fictional memoir). I won’t spoil this section too much by detailing every single character that Singer introduces, but suffice it to say, there are some memorable folks here. It’s a bit bewildering at times, with all the different family histories that are interwoven in these pages–so many names, it’s hard to keep them straight–but Singer provides a summary at the beginning of the section with all the relevant details. (I found that to be really helpful.)
I do want to cite one passage from the the section entitled “A Voice for My Grandmother” that I think really stands out.
“RANU, M’ZOOKA,” she would say, as she came through the door.
She would rummage through her huge patent-leather pocketbook and bring out a very large packet of bubblegum: Bazooka, a segmented log, pink and speckled with sugar. One by one, I would stuff as many segments as I could into my mouth— four? five?—and, when the bubble broke, it would cover my whole face.
“Ranu!” she would laugh, trying to look strict.
I was eight or nine in this memory. Was that Swahili she was speaking? Was the gift made from love or from a desire for acceptance? Who can possibly say? Grandma, like my own mom, lived in loving fear.
“Pocketbook, money, keys.” According to my mother that was my first utterance. Improbable.
Grandma never had a word to throw at a dog. She’d sit there smiling and nodding, and, once in a while, reach over and pat my hand.
“There was something, like, very, like, Sixties about Granny. Like, good vibes, man. Like.”
“Roll me a J, Gran?”
“No, Ranu. M’zooka.”
That’s marvelous. I don’t know what to say after that. It’s a really good book.
Like Gravy, The Promised End also deals with aging, but it presents a broader cross section. The book is divided into three parts: Mid-Life, Old Age, And After–. I guess it’s like the proverbial beginning-middle-end, but with a step skipped, and/or one added.
The mid-lifers are doing what mid-lifers do, of course: having crises. The tone is set right away in the first story in the book, called “Garbage.” Here, we get a peek at what can happen when a forty-ish father/husband is left alone with too much time on his hands. Throw in some unpicked-up garbage, some alcohol, a teenage girl, and it’s quite the adventure:
To get to the dump, we drove back to the stop sign, hung a left away from the coast, then followed a gravel road three miles through some woods. I drove slowly, and by the time we got there the sun had long since gone down behind the surrounding trees. Inside, a dirt track skirted the woods, and we followed it around to where it ducked into a little hollow partly hidden by a still-smoking pile of mostly burned trash. (I was surprised anyone still burned the stuff. What an ecologically incorrect town!) I slammed on the brakes, and we flung the remains of our dinner through the window and went at it like crazy.
Crazy is right. A little later in this section we see a full blown crisis in action, in the story “A Dream of Trains”. The main character is seeing a therapist, having unsuccessfully tried to kill himself after his wife left him. He seems pretty wise, though, for a mentally unstable person:
During another session, I fatuously said to Mason that a busy, successful life is the best bulwark against mental illness: one lives a crazy life in order not to be crazy.
I feel like I’ve heard similar advice before, and it seems sound to me: stay busy enough, and you simply won’t have time for a breakdown.
Thematically, things in The Promised End are a lot more open-ended than they are in Gravy–and wilder. This book seems much more outward-facing, more diverse. More exterior, less interior. The stories frequently feature travelers and vacationers. Some of the tales are set in other (non English-speaking) countries, with strange signs and symbols. Different customs. As such, the whole collection has a bit of an exotic quality to it, an otherness. The writing is more evocative, more fantastical. A bit strange. And exciting.
To catalog a few of the different settings in the book, there is a Navajo reservation in New Mexico (“The Silent Treatment”); Dire Dawa, Ethopia–by way of Nairobi, Kenya (“In Ethiopia, Once”); an unspecified country in Central Europe (“A Game of Lies”); a fictionalized country in Central Africa (“Their Countries of Origin”); and Istanbul, Turkey (“The Key”).
Of course there are the familiar urban landscapes too (New York City) but even the stateside stories give us a broader version of America than we see in Gravy. The writing in The Promised End frequently takes us to rural spaces–remote villages and towns, such as the quiet little town in Maine which serves as the backdrop for “Glen’s Vintage Tin.” Singer is really adept here at picking up the nuances of country life, especially the cadence, the pace:
The pole is still there, but there is no more truck and, so, no more sign.
“How many passing motorists do you suppose pointed at that sign before it came down?”
“Lots. Glen was in business for more than forty years.”
“What happened to him?”
Pearly sighed, made a sound like a car running down a road, and used his own thick right index finger to chart its progress. “Last October, he sold the business –his house, too — kit and caboodle. Bought an Airstream and took to the open road.” He made the noise and the finger movement again. “He’s living in a trailer park in Florida now.”
The second section of The Promised End, like all of Gravy, is focused on stories of old age. But it’s a very different feel. Again, things seem wilder, more chaotic. There are several memorable tales in this section. One of my favorites is called “Nose for a Jacket.” It’s like the Bizarro-world version of “Other People’s Clothes”–this time, with our narrator as the perpetrator of the crime. The object of his desire? Of all things, a jacket:
His jacket was the prosperous twin of mine. The color was that mossy green, my second favorite. Mine, now milk chocolate, but still rich milk chocolate, thirty-some years old, was so torn and frayed it could no longer be mended, and it made people look at me as if I were homeless (which I am not). His jacket had so little wear on it that, for whatever reason, it must have spent most of its life in a closet –a second “reason” he did not deserve to keep it.
In addition to featuring a huge assortment of odd and interesting characters, the stories in The Promised End are also highly plot-driven, which I appreciate. It’s one of the reasons why I want to read a story in the first place: to find out what happens next. In this respect, I have to say that “The Key” is my favorite, as the most plot-driven of them all. It has so many twists and turns, I could feel my pulse race as I read it:
“In what was the key wrapped?”
“[Bubble wrap],” Belevi replied. (He had to resort to a circumlocution, because the words do not exist in Turkish.)
“Nothing more?” the Colonel persisted.
“No…” Then he remembered. “Ah, but yes, inside the [bubble wrap] around the key was a page from an American newspaper. The New York Times,” he added in English.The Colonel looked pleased. “Ah well, there, quite possibly, lies your answer.” He glanced toward the open door, then lowered his voice. “This is for you to know, Belevi Bay, but you alone. Of late, by means of intercepted emails, the MIT has become aware of yet another newly hatched conspiracy between separatist elements in our country and a few American sympathizers, these living in their district of New Jersey. And so…”
He shrugged. Mr. Belevi’s face grew hot, and he opened his mouth to protest his innocence.
“No, no, of course not,” the Colonel reassured him. “No one who knows you, Belevi Bay, could possibly doubt your loyalty to our nation, even for a single instant.” He paused, and Mr. Belevi thought he might have caught a whiff of malicious pleasure. “But the MIT do not know you.” The Colonel smiled, then added, “However, I shall have a word about your little box with my… counterpart at our meeting this afternoon, and, after that, the matter should hopefully be closed.” He ended with what was presumably meant to be a reassuring proverb. “And, pardon me, Belevi Bay, but remember what our people in the hinterland say: ‘If God wants to make a poor man happy, he first makes him lose his donkey, then allows him to find it again.’”
Singer’s gift for narrative (perfect cadence, perfect timing) is on full display here, as is his penchant for mystery, for the caper, for police and detective work. I love how “The Key” marries all of these elements together. It’s fantastic.
The last section of the book (And After–) is fairly short, consisting of just two stories–“Total Body Crumble” and “The Old Avatar.” In the first story, Singer imagines a future where, thanks to advances in medical science, most of our organs, even brains, can be regenerated and put back into service. (The effects of that are, predictably, weird.) In the second story, he imagines a dead shopping-addict reincarnated as a giant papier-mâché sea captain. It’s an interesting choice to close the book, but I think the idea is that the story–or rather, the stories–will go on. Even if they’re weird. Even in “the after.” At least, that’s what we can hope.
To sum things up, I would say that on one hand, The Promised End feels like a less personal book (compared to Gravy) but on the other hand, I think it might have a wider reach. It’s certainly an easier read, for the casual reader. I’m not going to argue about which of these books is better though. I think that’s pointless. I’ll just close by saying that they’re both good books, and well worth your read.