Fourteen years after the Summer of Love, in 1981, I graduated from college with a marketless degree in philosophy. The buck stopped once I had that diploma in hand, my father, after the graduation ceremony, grunting ‘Philosophy’ under his breath, like I’d just earned a degree in bottle capping.
With wit and insight, so begins “Oracle House,” the strong opening tale in Kerry Langan’s second collection of short stories, Live Your Life. The “I” above is newly graduated Alan, aimless save for his desire to prove his father wrong. In his wanderings through San Francisco looking for work and lodging, Alan finds a room for rent in a colorful but worn Victorian that stands out from the rest of the flashy houses in the neighborhood because of the huge purple Delphic eye-in-a-pyramid painted on the home’s front peak. “I looked up into that eye,” he relates, “and thought it was looking ahead, that it knew my future.” Of course, the gorgeous girl in the dance leotard who answered the door helps him see a pleasant future too.
Soon after moving in, Alan – inspired by the house’s eye and his knowledge of utopian societies, and also propelled to some kind of action by his father’s doubt – proposes that the ragtag group of renters forms a cooperative society, painting homes for their landlord Bill, buying groceries together, and sharing household responsibilities. The only housemate who isn’t interested in playing along with the group is Jennifer, the dancer who first answered the door to Alan. “Do you have any idea what you’re talking about?” she asks. “This is real life, Alan. Grow up.”
Indeed, the reality Jennifer alludes to quickly causes unsettling hairline fractures in the fledgling utopia. Some members are more dedicated to doing chores than others; most complain about the tedium of burning old paint off Bill’s properties and applying fresh coats; even Alan reaches his limits with cooperation when he understands he doesn’t care to share his potential girlfriend, Sierra, with anyone else. As the co-op’s failure looms, Alan must confront his miscalculations in order to find a new way forward.
This first story provides a strong road map for taking off into the rest of the well-drawn, intimate landscapes of Langan’s characters. The first half of the collection features, among others, a single mother who works in a hair salon, an underachieving young woman joining the pecking order of a telemarketing call center, the invisible secretary devoted to her more famous counterpart, a man who finds peace after being jilted by his fiancée, and an aging soap opera actor coming to terms with a waning career.
The second half of the collection is set in a small college town, on the campus of a small liberal arts college, a hotbed of jealousies and intrigue and failure and fierce ambition set apart from the world at large. And yet, although sheltered by academe, the characters are recognizable, their motivations and yearnings understandable. To whichever place Langan turns her eye, she finds and draws for us real people, warts and all, living ordinary lives, coming to terms with the ways in which their ordinary has fallen short of expectation, yet determined to redefine their dignity out of what remains for them.
In the hands of a less sure writer, these tales might drift into sentimental conclusions. But Kerry Langan is a master of the short story form. She is funny and she is smart. She knows when and how much to prod a character, and when to hold back and let the character begin to know herself. Her word choice is enviable and her understanding of human nature boundless. With sharp eye and even sharper intuition, Langan captures every disappointment, but also brings to light those fractional turns each person makes that signal a determination to continue on and lead lives of quiet dignity. In her capable hands, the progress made is subtle, never mawkish, and every step is imbued with humanity.
–Kerry Langan had a career as an academic librarian before become a fiction writer. Her short fiction has appeared in more than forty literary journals published in the US, Canada, and Asia, including Other Voices, StoryQuarterly, American Literary Review, Antigonish Review, Rosebud, Thema, The Seattle Review, The Cimarron Review, Fireweed, and Yuan Yang.
Live Your Life makes a perfect companion to a rainy day when you have no other obligations tugging on you. You will want the entire day to yourself to read straight through. Make yourself a cup of tea, serve up a slice of this cocoa powder accented gingerbread and settle in. There is no better way to spend your time.
- 2 ¼ cups flour
- ¼ cup cocoa powder
- 1 ½ tsp. baking soda
- 1 tsp. cinnamon
- 1 Tbsp. ground ginger
- ½ tsp. salt
- 1 cup dark molasses
- 1 cup boiling water
- 1 stick unsalted butter, softened
- ½ cup light brown sugar
- 1 large egg
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-inch square baking pan and set aside.
Sift together the flour, cocoa, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.
Combine the molasses and boiling water in a small bowl or measuring cup, stir well to blend, and set aside.
Using medium speed, cream together the butter, brown sugar, and egg in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Lower the speed and mix in one-third of the flour mixture and one-third of the molasses mixture, beating until smooth and then scraping down the sides of the mixer bowl. Repeat with a second third of both, and then the final third of both flour and molasses. After the last additions of flour and molasses have been incorporated and batter is smooth, scrape down the sides of the bowl and blend again for just 10 seconds.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan.
Bake in the middle of the preheated oven for about 45 minutes. (Begin testing at 40 minutes; may take up to 50 minutes.)
Remove the pan to a cooling rack and let cake cool for 10 minutes. Turn the gingerbread onto a cooling rack to cool completely. Serve squares with whipped cream, if desired.
©2012 Jane A. Ward