Reviewed by Jim Simpson
Book & Author: I Want to Show You More by Jamie Quatro (2013, Grove/Atlantic)
Where & When: Decatur Public Library Auditorium, April 8, 2013. Sponsored by the Georgia Center for the Book.
Attendance: ~50 people ranging in age from early 20s to mid-70s.
Her Work: On the surface Jamie Quatro’s fiction focuses on things most people would rather not talk about: sex, religion, death, infidelity, phone sex. But Quatro almost immediately pulls you in, writing with such intense clarity, intelligence, deep wit and beauty about characters who give themselves over entirely to the physical as well as the spiritual in their unfulfilled lives.
Throughout the connected stories, we follow a woman in her late 30s as she begins and ends a long-distance phone-sex relationship with a friend of her husband. The stories range from traditional to fabulist, casting an unflinching and brutally honest eye on the nature of judgment, guilt, faith, family and death, while seeking their reflections in forgiveness, redemption, doubt, and perseverance. This dualism is strikingly evident in the location -- all of the stories take place in and around Lookout Mountain, Georgia, a town straddling the Georgia/Tennessee border (almost a fairytale land with whimsical street names), where Quatro lives with her husband and four children.
In “Decomposition: A Primer for Promiscuous Housewives”, a husband and wife are faced with the corpse of the woman’s would-be lover rotting in their bed after the long-distance affair has been broken off. Quatro compares the sense of loss and grief at the relationship’s end to the stages of decomposition: “III. Active Decay: in which the greatest loss of mass occurs. Purged fluids accumulate around the body, creating a cadaver decomposition island (CDI).” Reading this, I found it equally repulsive and hilarious, but I couldn’t turn away. In a nod to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Quatro describes the dead lover with black goo oozing from its crumbling jaws. It’s a story that sticks with you.
“Ladies and Gentlemen of the Pavement” is one of the more fabulist in the collection, about a near-future marathon race where entrants -- depending on their running prowess -- are given (mostly phallic, mostly heavy) statues that they must carry in backpacks throughout the entire race. This was one of the more surprising in the book, and one I can imagine being studied and dissected and discussed at length in any graduate writing program workshop.
Two of the stories pay homage to Eudora Welty and Steven Millhauser in style (she couldn’t have chosen two finer writers to emulate), but with Quatro’s own unique twists.
What She Read: She remarked that this was her first public reading in Georgia, seemed understandably a bit nervous, but read well, pausing at just the right places. She read “Caught Up” and “Relatives of God” the first and last pieces in the book, and two of the shortest. Both reveal God in the produce aisle with the apples, as well as some heady sexual references, hence the dramatic pauses.
Q & A: Questions ranged from those about Quatro’s religious upbringing and how that affected certain stories (she didn’t provide much personal detail, but noted that there is something in the scriptures that is inherently erotic about the way we’re supposed to think of God); the influence of Flannery O’Connor on her fiction (both wrestle with religious faith, Quatro even more so it seems, but with a Protestant perspective); her relationship with Jill McCorkle, who was her MFA mentor at Bennington College; the process of publishing after the completed manuscript (vague question, valiant answer); how her work changed after completing her MFA (no longer insulated, had to learn to “kill my darlings”); what do the statues in “Ladies and Gentlemen of the Pavement” represent? Quatro quoted T.S. Eliot, in short, why ask why?
Question I asked: The Jill McCorkle question was mine, and Quatro gushed about what a great writer, teacher and human being she is, and I couldn’t agree more. McCorkle is a favorite writer of mine and wonderful in person (I met her at the Conference of Southern Literature in Chattanooga a few years ago).
Other Questions I Wanted to Ask But Didn’t Get To Ask Because Time Ran Out: What surprised you the most in writing these stories? Were there connected themes that you hadn’t planned but noticed later or were pointed out by other writers, readers?
Did I Buy Something?: I brought my review copy, which she signed. Thanks to Grove/Atlantic for providing me a reveiwer's copy.
Worth Mentioning: She’s a runner, but will not be running the Peachtree this year due to an injury.
Editor's Note: Jim Simpson is an award-winning fiction writer and freelance music critic. A native of the wilds of Florida's Gulf Coast, he now resides on the scruffy fringes of Atlanta. He has been at work on his first novel for longer than he originally planned, and if all goes well the book should be in stores sometime before his death.