Shari L. Berg reviews Jeff Vande Zande’s story collection that battles with the instincts of the self vs. the community.
Jeff Vande Zande
Stories | 160 pages | 6” x 9” | Reviewed: ARC PDF
978–0982933596 | First Edition | $14.00
Whistling Shade Press| St. Paul| BUY HERE
Self-Preservation Is King in New Collection of Shorts
We live in an age where the buzzword “self-care” is passed off as the solution to everything that ails us. As the old adage goes, if you don’t take care of yourself, you’ll have nothing left to give to others. While there is some truth to it, there is a fine line between self-care and self-absorption. It is a line that author Jeff Vande Zande draws in the proverbial sand throughout his collection of shorts, The Neighborhood Division and Other Stories.
The over-arching theme is subtle in a few of the stories, such as “Smolder” and “Sleep Walker,” where readers are left with the faintest notion that the main character in each is questioning life choices and previous assumptions that were based solely on his own wants and needs:
“I lean back into the arm of the couch, letting her lie on top of me. Closing my eyes, I’m in that dark world again — dark with pleasure and everything animal. Her mouth on mine. I could live here. But there’s something else in this world now, too. It’s nagging, telling me I should stop this, that it isn’t right. She’s sick. On pills. I’m here to take something. The way she gives it, it almost feels like I’m stealing.” (from “Smolder,” p. 25)
“‘Charlotte? Charlotte? Do you think I was a terrible father? I said such things. I have my father’s mouth. I just think that I pushed her away — that it’s my fault that she turned out this way. Will she ever come around?’ He listens. Nothing. He decides he’ll let his wife sleep.” (from “Sleep Walker,” p. 54)
In other stories, like “That Which We Are” and “Distance,” the theme acts as if a secondary character, screaming at the top of its lungs for readers to pay attention so they don’t make the same mistakes:
“In the darkness he remembers her. Her e-mails. She will be there in a month. They will both be there. Without spouses. Hers because he’s afraid to fly, and his because she has to stay home and take care of Chelsea. ‘She’ll be old enough to stay with your folks in a few more years,’ he assured his wife. ‘And, it’s not like you’re missing anything.’” (from “Distance,” p. 71)
A few of the stories, Vande Zande admits, are a bit out there, dipping into surrealism or speculative fiction. One that immediately comes to mind is “Sleeping Deeply.” The short starts out normal enough, with friends gathered at a dinner party. It quickly plummets into surreal territory that leaves the reader baffled as to how anyone could encounter the circumstances Bruce Hunter finds in his basement and not be deeply disturbed. Yet, even in its bizarre weaving, the tale still manages to drive home the point that this is what happens when people are too focused inward.
The View from the Neighborhood
I had the opportunity to interview Vande Zande shortly before I wrote this review and to gain some insight into his thinking. He noted the stories were written over a five-year period more than a decade ago. It was only after he realized the stories played off of one another and explored similar themes that he decided to compile them into one handy collection.
He chose to name the collection after one of his favorite pieces. “The Neighborhood Division is the title of one of the stories in the collection,” he said during the interview. “Thematically, it’s also a good title for the collection. The stories in the book often explore the theme of how our instinct is most likely self-preservation. We are called to look out for everyone . . . when we are at our best. The characters in the collection are often divided between acting to preserve the self or acting for the greater good — the entire community.”
All too often, characters in the collection choose the former instead of the latter, leaving the reader to imagine the devastating results to follow.
Of all the stories in his collection, Vande Zande highlighted “Self Defense” as among his favorites for the particular style of storytelling it uses. It’s a very suspenseful type of story, and the reader keeps waiting for the main character to be attacked. Her paranoia of waiting and expecting it to happen creates a sense of urgency when you’re reading it.
Given the current global pandemic that has forced many to batten down the hatches under mandatory social distancing orders, “Load” is another short in the collection that may hit home with readers. The main character, Crowe, is driven by the need to do the right thing. He desperately tries to convince his neighbors that they must get on board with following strict guidelines for weight limits in their individual apartments to protect the entire building from collapse. It would take the collective to protect the whole, which is not unlike the pandemic situation in which we all must agree to social distance to protect the health of all. Does he succeed? Readers will have to delve into the collection to find out.
Vande Zande was so moved by Crowe’s plight that he has decided to expand the short into its own forthcoming novel called Falling Sky. He wrote the novel in three and a half weeks and currently is working on editing it. “Working on the novel was my escape from the reality of how COVID-19 has obliterated reality as we know it.”
The Bottom Line
The Neighborhood Division is formatted in such a way that readers can pick and choose which stories to read, taking a break when needed, or reading from cover to cover without stopping. The set-up is ideal for those who may not have large chunks of time to devote at once and worry about forgetting vital plot points between reading sessions. Each piece can be read in a matter of minutes.
The writing is fresh and timeless, presented in a way that will still make it relevant to readers five years from now, or 25 years from now. The struggle of self over community is an age-old dilemma, with some of Vande Zande’s characters handling the decision better than others. Readers will find themselves shaking their heads in disbelief at some of the characters’ poor decisions while screaming “what is wrong with you?” at others.
Regardless of whether readers love each story in the collection equally, Vande Zande said he hopes reading his book leaves them with an urgency to evaluate their own lives.
“Given our current world, I hope they see that focusing too much on the success of the self while ignoring the needs of the greater community can be detrimental. If we looked out for each other the way we look out for ourselves, the world would be a much better place. Many of the characters in the stories fail to realize this, and that’s because, like us, they are flawed humans.”