Race is less subject than context in these eight finely crafted tales, all consistently challenging readers’ basic assumptions.
Like many of Packer’s characters, Dina, in the title story (previously published in the New Yorker’s Debut Fiction issue in summer 2000), is a studious loner whose disdain toward her fellow students, black and white, covers years of angry hurt. The Yale freshman begins a friendship with a white girl but can’t follow through. Dina appears again in “Geese,” living in Japan with a multinational group of down-and-outers and discovering how far down she’ll go to survive. These are not cheerful tales. In the marvelous opener, “Brownies,” a Brownie troop plots to beat up a white troop at their camp over a suspected racial offense; but the white girls turn out to be retarded innocents. Packer frequently uses the black church as background; in “Every Tongue Shall Confess,” religious and romantic longings get tangled together for a lonely, devout nurse. Tia, in “Speaking in Tongues,” runs away from her aunt’s devout but stable home to find her crack addict mother in Atlanta. In “Our Lady of Peace,” an educated young woman leaves her mostly white hometown in Kentucky to become a high-school teacher in Baltimore, where she’s defeated by her unreachable students and her own naiveté. “The Ant of the Self” offers the collection’s only male protagonist, a studious high-school debater in Louisville who finds himself driving his dead-beat dad to the Million Man March, where his father, ignoring the spirit of the event, abandons him. The last story, set in 1961, deals directly with race as the subject. The eponymous heroine of “Doris Is Coming” tries to understand the Civil Rights Movement within the framework of her small but complex world. When she enacts a one-person sit-in at a local lunch counter, the waitress says she can’t officially serve her but offers Doris her own unfinished milk shake instead.
Highly personal yet socio-politically acute: a debut collection that cuts to the bone of human experience and packs a lasting wallop.