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Philly2Philly Book Review: Philly Fiction 2

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Philly Fiction 2, Published by Don Ron Books

Cover Philly Fiction 2I always approach local writing with controlled optimism. Philly, and all of us who’ve lived here for any length of time, suffers a sort of perpetual middle-child syndrome. Outshined by our sibling cities to the north and south, we’re pretty sure that nobody cares about us.  So we either act out to get attention or we keep doing that one trick we know will make everyone cheer. Look, it’s the Liberty Bell!  Look, it’s a cheese steak! Look, it's Rocky! That’s why I’m generally apprehensive about writing focused on Philadelphia. It takes a skillful writer who really “gets” the city—deep down, under the surface and the stereotypes—to get it right.

I am extremely impressed at the number of such writers collected in Philly Fiction 2:  A Second Collection of Short Stories Highlighting Philadelphia as a City of Literary Inspiration. The collection includes 19 stories set in and around Philly, written by folks who’ve been here their whole lives, or for just a few years, or who’ve moved away but still carry this city around with them. These emerging and accomplished writers are teachers, students, social workers, nurses, bartenders, and more. They are the diversity of Philadelphia and so are their characters. 

In fact, I liken reading Philly Fiction 2 to my best (and worst) rides on SEPTA. It’s that moment when you look around the bus or the subway car and wonder, How can one town possibly have so much… personality? In one story you’ve got a young guy obsessed with formaldehyde-preserved brains, in another you’ve got a homeless stalker. There’s a down-on-his-luck contractor, a jittery alcoholic ad man, a schizophrenic obsessed with getting to Memphis, and a guy with a very high-tech sound system who makes half of Center City think he’s taken hostages, though you’re never quite sure why. Oh, and let’s not forget the 14-year-old kid with “Fuck You” tattooed across his back.

That kid, Sonny Ciccarelli, is the main character of Kelly McQuain’s “Erasing Sonny,” a gorgeous, subtle story about a South Philly boy struggling with his family’s turmoil and his sexual identity. This story alone is worth the price of admission!  It is brilliant—understated and three-dimensional. McQuain’s mastery of subtext puts you inside Sonny’s head and heart as he grapples with big, life-altering issues. McQuain also sets the stage for a contemporary South Philly Irish-Italian household, without beating you over the head with the clichés. I was so pleasantly surprised when Sonny’s Italian grandmother was making him mozzarella-stuffed cabbages (as opposed to meatballs, or something equally banal) for his fifteen birthday to “please both the Italian and the Irish in your blood.”  Such unique details are what make you feel like you know Sonny and his family, and you care about them. 

Justin St. Germain’s “Atlantic City” is another understated story, full of wonder and surprise. The story is about a man who returns to Philadelphia to bury his mother and ultimately has an unexpected bonding experience with his grandfather. St. Germain’s writing is agile and unforced. His characters are complex and even a bit mysterious (to the reader and to each other), and they reveal themselves gradually, naturally, the way that people do. Likewise, in “Memphis” Sandra Novack delivers believable, sympathetic characters—a newly married couple, which have found themselves responsible for the husband’s schizophrenic brother. Bud, in particular, felt so sadly familiar to me; his confusion, melancholy, guilt and determination reminded me of so many people I see walking around, who look like its all they can do to just bear the weight of living.  

What I love about all of these stories is that they could be happening to anyone, anywhere. But there is also something uniquely Philadelphia about them and the fact that their stories take place here make them that much richer. 

There are, unfortunately, a few disappointing stories in this collection—and I can’t for the life of me figure out why the editors chose to put them right up front. The low point for me was the opening story, “Give and Take” by Bruce Langfeld. This cringe-worthy cliché is about a struggling contractor, with a failed marriage, a mountain of debt, and a mafia loan shark. The story barely rises above the made-for-tv vision of Philly—with over dramatic dialogue, a predictable plot, and unsympathetic, one-dimensional characters. 

“Northeast Philly Girls” by Elise Juska was another big let down. The repetitive, almost Dickens-like description of Northeast Philly girls in the first paragraph felt immediately overbearing and imposing. Juska breaks the first rule of writing:  Show don’t tell. What’s most unfortunate is that she doesn’t need the paragraph at all.  She does such a good job of showing what these girls are like later on in the story that the first paragraph feels all the more gratuitous.  The other thing that irked me about this story is the way the narrator consistently refers to “Northeast Philly” and “the suburbs.”  I’ve lived here all my life and never heard anyone speak so generically about where they’re from.  The Northeast is vast, and there’s a big difference between Somerton, Olney, Fox Chase, Oxford Circle, etc. Likewise, the narrator mentions living “in the suburbs” in a way that reminds me of those old movies when people referred to moving out of the city to “living in the country.” That’s just not the way people here talk. They know where they’re from and they tell you; and they’re not likely to take some vague answer from you, either.  I can’t imagine telling someone, even when I was 12, that I lived in the suburbs and not having them demand some more specific information. 

Even some of the collection’s more interesting stories suffer the foibles of bad writing—there was a lack of cohesion in some places, a few flat characters here and there, and some unnecessary and distracting point-of-view shifts. But persevere, fair reader. These stories are ultimately good enough to overcome any of their shortcomings. All in all, Philly Fiction 2 is filled with situations and characters that are original and lively—the kind of storytelling you eavesdrop on in Starbucks or on the train.  As a life-long Philly girl, I am amazed and grateful to the editors for pulling together such an authentic collection.  

You can get your copy this Wednesday, July 22nd from 7 to 9 pm at the Philly Fiction 2 launch party hosted by Don Ron Books at Skylight 307 in Old City. You can also buy copies from the Philly Fiction website, www.phillyfiction.com, as well as several area booksellers.