On Alice Kaltman’s ‘Staggerwing’
Kaltman handles her off-center characters with empathy and humor in her latest story collection.
Fiction | Short Stories
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A.
Staggerwing is a collection of eleven short stories that immediately takes flight and never staggers. It’s propelled by unique characters, attention-earning plots, and a balanced mixture of light and dark themes.
The set of memorable characters includes a sassy 70-year-old woman, a middle-aged soon-to-be-divorced guy, a bored security guard, daughters, mothers, and a widow carrying around her late husband’s ashes in a baggie. Kaltman handles all of these with careful empathy, using humor to guide them through losses which are often universal, but never too extreme.
None may be more memorable than the narrator of the opening story. She best speaks for herself:
I needed a goddamn purpose. Everyone around me was, pardon the lingo, finding themselves. Women my age were going on yoga retreats, throwing clay, volunteering at homeless shelters. None of that appealed to me, and I wasn’t going to do something just for the sake of doing something. It stuck in my craw that there I was, 70 years old, without a clue as to what to do.
(“Stay A While,” p. 1).
This character shares traits with the other voices in this book. They are strong and speak to the point. They are often underrepresented in literature. They have been thrown for a loop, pushed a little off-course as if the gods wished to irritate them more than hurt them. The characters are almost always ready to fight back even if they may not know the best way.
At about twenty pages per story, Kaltman has the space to work with plots that take surprising, funny, and, satisfying turns. You can sit with each story, but the stay never feels too long. The 70-year-old narrator from the first story, bored by life, discovers a fantastic way to live vicariously through guests in her basement rental. In “Boss Man,” the main character finds help through the friendship of a woman who earlier in life had been a former male classmate of hers. In a couple of the stories, multiple character points of view are weaved together in order to get everyone to the end of his or her arc.
Serious things happen to these characters, but the story is often about the smaller efforts of picking up the pieces after the big thing has occurred. They are trying to find their way through the different awkward stages of life.
One of the pieces with a little more serious stakes is “Blossoms.” It takes place in 1969 when a group of adolescents take a detour from a camp field trip and are either shielded from or exposed to adult experience based on their willingness to observe. The main character’s takeaway is classic preteen angst. She is more outraged by the other girls later trying to claim the experience she had earned as a first-hand observer:
Ellie knew for a fact most of the girls had been bored to tears, sunburned, and starved. None of them had even gotten off their butts to wander behind the house for a Blossoms swim. None of them had seen what Ellie had seen. Penises that would mark the day. Penises and Joy, with her teenage bosom and wild side. None of them.
The title story is about a man on a business trip to Japan. While there, he tackles the cultural differences in a way similar to, but more humorous than, Lost in Translation. He was many conversations with a young Japanese girl where he is not always successful in bridging the language barriers. His job in the country is to lead the team assembling a historic plane at an aviation museum. Here, he explains the meaning of a Staggerwing:
Will cleared his throat, and tried to forget the lingering sensation of Mariko’s warm hand on his bare forearm. “Well, in aeronautics we refer to ‘stagger’ as the horizontal positioning of wings in relation to each other when there’s more than one set of wings. When the upper wing is positioned behind the lower wing, as is the case with this beauty, we call it negative stagger.
(“Staggerwing,” p. 166).
The characters of this collection essentially are all Staggerwings. There is beauty in their offset, which can be negative, but not necessarily bad. They are just what they are: positioned slightly off-center, minding their particular way, somehow maintaining the art of flight.