Gallery of the Dis­ap­peared Men

  • Review
By – September 6, 2023

For the des­per­ate char­ac­ters in Jonathan Papernick’s new sto­ry col­lec­tion, vio­lence seems like the only solu­tion to discontent. 

The novel­la that opens the book, Dis­placed Per­son,” reads as staid his­tor­i­cal fic­tion until the nar­ra­tor, the Holo­caust sur­vivor Fan­nie, observes a sadis­tic Jew­ish gang­ster named Moses pum­mel­ing a mohel after a botched bris. “’Don’t for­get to take your teeth,’ Moses Cahn called after him, toss­ing a pair of blood­ied teeth like a set of dice.” Fan­nie is more drawn to this schlub­by, ani­mal­is­tic gang­ster than Las­z­lo, the gor­geous, genius watch­mak­er and war hero who brought her to Amer­i­ca and mar­ried her. It’s a con­found­ing choice. Kaper­nick com­pels the read­er to see Fan­ny in the way Las­z­lo him­self does — not as a shrill ingrate, but rather as a woman so beat down by vio­lence that only dan­ger can give her pur­pose. Yet Las­z­lo might have more patience than most read­ers do.

Vio­lence attracts oth­er female char­ac­ters in Papernick’s world. In The Cinq à Sept Girl,” a young woman in an abu­sive work envi­ron­ment finds the thrill of vio­lence in an uncon­ven­tion­al rela­tion­ship and ends up pay­ing with her life for it. In In Fla­grante Delic­to,” anoth­er woman, seek­ing sanc­tu­ary in sex from her husband’s slow death, ulti­mate­ly rejects the freak­ish man she picks up, declin­ing his offer to drill a hole in her head, as he has done in his own, and fuck it. (You read that cor­rect­ly.) This sto­ry drops the façade of real­ism much soon­er than Dis­placed Per­son,” does. The vio­lence that can come off as car­toony in the novel­la is trans­formed here into out­right car­toon, with a won­der­ful­ly twist­ed black humor.

Many of Papernick’s sto­ries are open­ly sur­re­al, like the love­ly and mys­te­ri­ous When the Rains Came,” while oth­ers are sat­is­fy­ing revenge fables. The arro­gant tourist on a safari, the bul­lies who beat a sen­si­tive boy into uncon­scious­ness — these mon­sters all get what’s com­ing to them. The mean boys at camp who tor­ture the mis­fit get away with it, but a sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tion of campers does not.

The most mov­ing sto­ry in the col­lec­tion is Emails from My Dead Moth­er,” which takes a sur­re­al premise to an all-too-real­is­tic end. The emails the nar­ra­tor receives con­tain details that only his late moth­er could know; they even sound like her. Restored to life in her son’s mem­o­ry, the moth­er is not a com­fort­ing fig­ure. She’s a scam­mer of free hotel nights, a sybarite who leaves restau­rants with a dog­gie bag to extend the boun­ty for anoth­er day,” and expects the bill to be picked up by her din­ing com­pan­ion, in this case her son. There was no get­ting away from it — if I met her for lunch it was going to cost me,” the nar­ra­tor realizes.

Even the char­ac­ters who man­age to escape vio­lence end up in dif­fer­ent sorts of hell, their lives dead­ened by rel­a­tive safe­ty and secu­ri­ty. The end of Dis­placed Per­son” gives us Fan­nie, large­ly free now of the gang­ster, sewing her bur­ial shroud” in the back of her husband’s shop. In In Fla­grante Delic­to,” Jen­nifer escapes the hole-driller only to return to a life of regret and remorse.” Even though it’s some­times dif­fi­cult to empathize with Papernick’s dan­ger-dri­ven char­ac­ters, their psy­chol­o­gy is fas­ci­nat­ing nonetheless.

Jason K. Fried­man is the author of the sto­ry col­lec­tion Fire Year, which won the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fic­tion and the Anne and Robert Cow­an Writ­ers Award. His arti­cle on the Solomon Cohen fam­i­ly, pub­lished in Moment mag­a­zine, won an Amer­i­can Jew­ish Press Asso­ci­a­tion Award. He lives in San Fran­cis­co, with his hus­band, film­mak­er Jef­frey Friedman.

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