Brownies and Yalies

Never mind the sprawling, flamboyant fiction of yesteryear—hyperactive spectacles like White Teeth and Infinite Jest that ransacked late-20th-century popular culture, burning through plotlines, information, and imagination with merry abandon. Good writing never goes out of fashion, as high school English teachers love to remind us, but certain types of fiction do fall in and out of vogue. How else to explain why nobody reads John Dos Passos anymore, or why the term “magic realism” has become little more than a slur?

ZZ Packer, anointed by The New Yorker in their 2000 Debut Fiction issue, seems perfectly suited to the current moment of American uncertainty and awkwardness. The short stories in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere feel refreshingly subtle and unresolved. They don’t call attention to themselves; in fact, they shun linguistic bravado, irony, and stylistic swagger. Sometimes her fondness for pathos weighs the stories down, makes them feel a little too much like virtuous parables. But in the book’s more organic pieces, Packer’s characters feel inseparable from the messy sociopolitical landscape, feet firmly planted in our world.

Packer specializes in goody-goodies—most of her heroines are young, wholesome African American women caught at a formative moment, ducking bitterness as it settles in around them. Packer forces them up against the rough surface of the world and watches them lose their way: The quiet honor-roll student unraveled by alienation and sadness at Yale, where she’s deemed a dangerous rebel; the teenaged debate-team whiz who ends up on his own at the Million Man March, ditched by his misguided slacker dad; the well-meaning woman who wants to teach high school in inner-city Baltimore but can’t connect with her troubled charges.

“Brownies,” the collection’s first story, opens unassumingly: “By our second day at Camp Crescendo, the girls in my Brownie troop had decided to kick the asses of each and every girl in Brownie Troop 909.” The sentimental voice-over quality of the sentence’s first half is shattered by the cartoony violence of the second. Brownies, summer camp, ass-kicking—all perfectly calibrated for maximum amusement. It transpires that Troop 909 is white, and their aura of white-girl perfection instantly pisses off the black Brownies who share the camping facilities: “They turtled out from their bus in pairs, their rolled-up sleeping bags chromatized with Disney characters: Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Mickey Mouse . . . ” Even worse, the black troop becomes convinced that one of these peachy princesses uttered the word “nigger,” and they hatch a plan to jump them in the bathroom.

The tale takes too long to play out, but it eventually drops a clever twist: Rather than privileged white bitches, the members of Troop 909 turn out to be mentally retarded. Through her narrator, a shy, thoughtful girl nicknamed “Snot,” Packer brings alive the world of the black Brownies—the social pressures, the snatches of poetry that drift through their heads, the self-mythologizing secrets, and the insider catchphrases. As Snot reports, the favorite insult that summer was “Caucasian,” as in “If you ate too fast you ate like a Caucasian, if you ate too slow you ate like a Caucasian.” Packer makes race her first order of business here, maybe because she suspects it’s always going to be the first category on that invisible checklist people carry in their heads. As Spurgeon, the debate-team champ in “The Ant of the Self,” declares, “I don’t think for a minute that my teachers liked me because of my logical mind; they liked me because I was quiet and small, and not rowdy like they expected black guys to be.”

The collection’s strongest narratives hinge on characters like Spurgeon, misfits in every aspect of their lives. Tia in “Speaking in Tongues” is the only “saved” girl at her school, and in her ruffled blouses and long skirts she stands out amid all the sexy, belly-baring nymphets; yet she doesn’t fit in at church either, because she hasn’t learned to speak in tongues. The title story introduces us to Dina on her first day of Yale orientation. When she hesitates to play a game of “Trust” with her geeky fellow freshman, her patronizing white counselor offers, “Sister . . . you don’t have to play this game. As a person of color, you shouldn’t have to fit into any white, patriarchal system.” Back in Baltimore, Dina had been a polite honor student who got teased for being a nerd, but in this new context, she notes, “Suddenly I was hard-bitten and recalcitrant, the kind of kid who took pleasure in sticking pins into cats.” Misery rises off Dina like steam, repelling all potential friends, until one day Heidi—a fat, white Canadian girl—knocks on her door, sobbing.

Their friendship is intense, playful, sensual, and confused in the way only adolescent best-friendships can be, and Packer depicts it with great tenderness. In one of the few sexual scenes in an otherwise very chaste book, Dina hoses down Heidi’s naked body in the empty cafeteria, where they both work as dishwashers. Heidi “stood there, stiff, arms at her sides, eyes closed, as though awaiting mummification. . . . I sprayed her and sprayed her, and she turned over and over like a large beautiful dolphin, lolling about in the sun.”

The reader hopes Dina will “find” herself, but her appearance in a second story only gets her more lost. In “Geese,” she flies to Japan hoping to make a lot of money, though “it wasn’t really a plan at all, but a feeling, a nebulous fluffy thing that had started in her chest, spread over her heart like a fog.” Bunking in a room with four other destitute foreigners, she ends up doing squalid things she never thought she’d do, transformed by context just as she had been years before at Yale. One day, staring at birds in the park, Dina thinks about the kamikaze planes she’d once read about.

“Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” is a work of emotional origami—the most complex creation in this promising, downtempo collection of stories. And in Dina, she has conjured a vivid heroine who teeters on the edge of a tenuous future, lowering her expectations notch by notch.