You Should Pity Us Instead by Amy Gustine
“Most serious and productive artists,” writes Joyce Carol Oates, “are ‘haunted’ by their material—this is the galvanizing force of their creativity, their motivation. It is not and cannot be a fully conscious or volitional ‘haunting’—it is something that seems to happen to us, as if from without, no matter what craft is brought to bear upon it…” Even as Amy Gustine displays a remarkable command of prose and narrative in her debut collection You Should Pity Us Instead, the obsessions that materialize again and again in her stories, watchful and ghostlike, leave little doubt that the author has known such a haunting.
A startling range of characters appears in Gustine’s collection: peculiar, spooky voices not often found in published fiction. “Goldene Medene,” set on Ellis Island, features an elderly woman called Old Loaf, a young Polish woman with hair like “fired clay,” and a physician tasked with inspecting immigrants for disease and marking their shoulders with cryptic symbols in blue chalk––an act tantamount to deciding their fates. “AKA Juan” introduces Lawan, a young man who works as a driver for disabled children with “skulls cradled by headrests and chins fixed by straps, like victims of mad scientists in the old black-and-white movies.” A former foster child, he sneaks off to visit the birth mother who vanished from his life years prior, a woman who “oils her hair into the shape of a fan, like a chicken’s tail across the back of her head,” and who lives in a slouching duplex with “dirty white aluminum siding, spongy porch boards and the ghost outline of long-gone shutters.”
One of the collection’s more gothic stories, “The River Warta,” chronicles the grisly warfare between a young woman’s parents. Her mother, who speaks “as if she had a marble on her tongue” thanks to an attack of scarlet fever in childhood, and her father, a chemist born with a hand resembling “a mere nub of tissue just below what should have been his elbow,” humiliate each other in a daily parade of horror that culminates with the meat stew her mother serves the family in their gruesome last battle. In contrast, Gustine uses scraped-to-the-bone prose in “All the Sons of Cain” to tell the story of an Israeli mother who risks death to descend into the bowels of the earth, tunneling into Gaza in search of the adopted son she first encountered as an “infant set adrift in disaster’s bulrush and washed up in the rubble of an Istanbul street.”
Yet as disparate as these characters and storylines might first appear, they work in bewitching concert throughout the collection, giving rise to a larger current of meaning. As Gustine writes, “The river seemed a majestic, mysterious transport, always on the way to something else…” While this line explicitly functions as an analogue for the protagonist’s parents in “The River Warta,” its subsequent description as “a lonely, menacing thing with a dark, inscrutable surface” can be understood as an extended metaphor for the entire book. Over and over, the author wrestles with parent-child dynamics, religion, fate, and death, using language so fierce and claw-like it soon becomes apparent that this “lonely, menacing thing” has got her fast in its grip. By the time we read, “Pain is an efficient teacher” in the collection’s final story, “Half-Life,” it’s clear that Gustine, like the character who utters this statement, understands just how brutal such a teacher can be.
Even so, the violence in these stories rarely emerges from the shadows and instead prefers to reveal itself as a phantomlike presence lurking in the periphery. In “When We’re Innocent,” a man burdened with emptying his daughter’s apartment after her suicide thinks,
Still the mountain unnerved him. No matter where he turned, still it stood in his sight line as if it had something to say, but preferred to wait at a discreet distance until the time was right.
Similarly, the collection’s title story includes the observation that “death is like God: it answers every question with silence, but that doesn’t mean it’s not waiting for you.” If obsessions are, as Steve Almond has suggested, “the deepest forms of human meaning,” then perhaps it’s no surprise that Gustine has found herself tangled up in her own ghoulish battle with mortality. It might even be said that for Gustine, this spectral predator contains an eerily seductive appeal. As she writes, “It gave an odd satisfaction, having something wild, unreachable through logic or language of any kind, decide it needed you.”
Karen Tucker’s short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in EPOCH, American Literary Review, Salamander, upstreet, and Carve Magazine. Currently, she’s grappling with a novel-in-progress and pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at Florida State.