Brief Encounters With the Enemy

  • Said Sayrafiezadeh
  • Dial Press
  • 240 pp.

Set in a decaying Midwestern town, these stories chronicle the modest hopes of workers stuck in dead-end jobs.

The stories in Said Sayrafiezadeh’s debut collection (several of which first appeared in the New Yorker) are linked by a strange war being waged by America against an unnamed foe, a war avidly followed by the flag-waving people living in an anonymous Rust Belt city. The stories are also connected by recurring motifs of strange weather that mixes early blizzards and heat waves; totemic factories that roar back to life to supply the war machine, spewing fumes that burn the eyes and smell like pesticide; and enlistment in the armed forces as several characters’ primary hope for betterment.

These recurrences create a surreal, allegorical feel that suggests alternative fiction, only here it is alternative reality: In this America no one questions the war and no one aspires to more than the most banal accomplishments — promotion to bagging clerk at the super-grocery or district manager at the Wal-Mart. Sayrafiezadeh skillfully uses this strange place as a backdrop for stories that will be all too familiar to those who really do stock the shelves of Wal-Mart (the store figures in several stories here) or who clean the floors of the super-grocers. If his characters willingly buy in to the notion that their enemy is thousands of miles away, Sayrafiezadeh makes clear that their real enemy lies somewhat closer to hand. 

Sayrafiezadeh has a keen eye for power relations, for all the slings and arrows routinely endured by these non-winners in the economy. Thankfully, his instincts are not those of a polemicist. Rather, he illuminates his themes with sharply rendered moments of laugh-out-loud humor, as in this recollection about working as a short-order cook related by the unemployed protagonist of “Cartographer”: 

“I remember vividly the grueling twelve-hour shifts, the beer reward at the end of the night, the pretty waitresses, the black cooks who had gotten addicted to crack. If we wanted a meal, we had to pay for it, so I would surreptitiously cook myself food and then eat it while hiding in the bathroom stall, sitting on the toilet. At the time I thought I had managed to even the playing field.” 

But there is no level playing field to be found here, and the characters are not able to articulate what is happening to them and around them; their mute retreat into oft-repeated slogans such as “hold steady” and “kick ass” is rendered all the more poignant by what the readers can see and the characters cannot.

If there is any problem with the characters in these stories, it is that none of them can see, in any meaningful way. They are seemingly devoid of complexity, their secret thoughts and desires the same meaningless rubble in this apocalyptic flood as the slogans they mouth, their inner lives rendered as strange as the world around them. If this collection is in many ways a protest against the oppressions its characters face, perhaps these depredations reach even into their imaginations. But one can sense, behind their empty thoughts and words, that these characters often have an intelligence, an ironic sensibility that notices, and in that way calls attention to what is hollow in their lives. These characters can’t put it into words, but they know something is not quite right.

In “Associates,” Nick, who has in his own eyes “made it” by rising to the position of assistant manager at the town’s Wal-Mart, can see from this lofty perch what lies in his future: “In ten years, I’ll be thirty-six. I’ll have a potbelly and I’ll be bald. I’ll look like the district manager who drives a yellow Mercedes ... He says to me, ‘I was just like you once, Nick.’ He wants to keep me motivated.” In the meantime, Nick purloins goods from the store he manages, bringing his swag to a local fence not because he needs the petty cash, but because he wants to ask the fence’s daughter, Zlottie, out for a date. Joey-Joey is his accomplice, and for his help Nick, in keeping with his self-regard as a man who has worked hard and deserves more, rewards him with one dollar for every four he keeps for himself. (Nick may mean this as sly irony. The reader has to decide.)  

As some readers will recall from his acclaimed memoir When Skateboards Will Be Free, Sayrafiezadeh, a self-described all-American boy from Illinois, had an unusual upbringing: His Iranian father and Jewish mother were ardent socialists, believers in a world revolution they saw as imminent. In an interview on the webzine 3G1B, he describes how all this informed his writing of these stories. The empty slogans of world revolution of his upbringing made him want to illuminate, in his fiction, how such calls hold people captive. The people of Brief Encounters mouth their sentiments of patriotism and commercialism not because they believe any of it, but because they don’t know how else to speak and think. Despite those empty sayings, the author, who once worked dead-end jobs in a decaying Midwestern town, retains a deep sympathy for his proletarian characters, for the people who actually work and shop at Wal-Mart.

Sayrafiezadeh’s genius is not only in the way he almost painfully keeps our attention on the powers at play in these peoples’ lives, but in his sentences themselves. His deceptively simple prose has a grip that gently pulls but never slackens. The words and images pour in and the reader is pulled in, on and through these stories effortlessly, stories that seem to get better with each read. (You can read an interview with the author at 3G1B here.)

Rimas Blekaitis is lives in Washington, D.C., and writes fiction. He is a recent graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing Program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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