When asked to describe the neighborhood in which I grew up—Lookout Mountain, Ga.—I’ve often compared it to the work of John Cheever, if Cheever were Southern and writing about the 1980s. You know, it’s a land where people hang out at country clubs, drinking gin and tonics, playing golf or bridge, and occasionally having affairs.
Thankfully, Jamie Quatro’s new collection of stories, I Want to Show You More (Grove), most of which are set on Lookout Mountain, where she lives, are nothing like that. (I should note that while Quatro does live in the same general neighborhood as my family, neither I nor they have any connections to her whatsoever.) After all, does the world really need any more literary depictions of the lives of WASPs? Probably not. Her characters run instead of play golf, and they actively wrestle with their faith instead of drowning questions about it in alcohol. But, in the one superficial similarity to the world of Cheever, the characters also do not remain faithful.
I say characters, but really, it seems to be one character who has an affair, one which may never actually be physically consummated but is emotionally destructive to the character’s marriage nonetheless. The same story is told and retold in different ways and from different points of view—first-, second-, and third-person narratives—with enough fragments recurring to make you think it is indeed the same character.
In “Caught Up,” the speaker’s childhood vision of God returns as a vision of her lover. In “Decomposition: A Primer for Promiscuous Housewives,” the metaphorical presence of the knowledge of the lover becomes an actual dead body, decomposing in the marital bed, as the protagonist grieves the loss of her relationship. In “What Friends Talk About,” the mother talks to her lover instead of watching her children. In “You Look Like Jesus,” she mourns the sexy cellphone pictures she deleted after the affair ended. In “Holy Ground,” she literally runs across town to escape the affair. And in “Relatives of God,” she finally returns to her husband.
To distill I Want to Show You More to just the stories about the affair is a disservice, I know, and not what I am suggesting you do. But it is those stories that contain the starkest, the most startling pieces of writing in the collection. They capture the intensity of desire, of pure lust, of loving someone you can never have. Quatro writes in “You Look Like Jesus”:
“The man is quiet.
“Sometimes, he says, when I’m home alone, I lean my forehead against the wall and say your name.
“Say it now, she says, and he does, his voice cracking on the vowel.
“I can’t work, he says. At night all I want is for my wife to go to bed so I can sit in my office and think about you. …
“What I want, she says, is for you to make me cry, then be the one to make it stop.”
Quatro’s phone/text/virtual sex scenes get much more explicit than this, and it’s to her credit that she can write sex so well. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I read sex scenes this good, ones that accurately depict the grown-up female ache of desire.
Yet I Want to Show You More is not so much a meditation on lust, or love, as it is on faith, family, and even death. The woman who has the affair seems to be a doppelgänger for Quatro herself—married to a college professor, mother of four children. A similar yet different doppelgänger arises in “Here” and “Georgia the Whole Time.” In the first story a professor must deal with the recent loss of his wife to cancer while taking his four children on vacation; in the second, the wife has just found out she is dying and must tell her children.
“Tell me if you think this is true: it is easier to accept defeat and try to make the wreckage look beautiful than to keep fighting and lose. It feels true to me,” Quatro writes.
Death, sex, Jesus—they’re all intertwined, Quatro seems to be saying. Her characters’ emotions are raw and on display, the antithesis of WASP culture if there ever was one. In “Demolition,” a George Saunders-esque fantastical tale of a church congregation slowly dismantling its building, the true believers end up in the woods, enacting the mystery of God in the flesh. (Yes, she’s talking about orgies.)
As with any collection of short stories, there are a couple that don’t work as well. “1.7 to Tennessee,” about a senile woman’s walk to the post office to protest the war in Iraq, veers off track more than once. And “Ladies and Gentlemen of the Pavement,” which describes a dystopia where runners must run while wearing heavy phallic sculptures on their backs, is a bit too heavy-handed.
Still, I Want to Show You More marks the emergence of a new Southern talent. Quatro doesn’t just dissect the modern marriage and the modern family, but the modern evangelical church. It’s a book to both devour and chew over. It’s brave, and it’s bold, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.