"Where the God of Love Hangs Out"
By Amy Bloom
Random House, 206 pages, $25
Whether desperate for deep intimacy or innocently seeking the transformative power of love, all of the characters in Amy Bloom’s latest collection have one thing in common: their antics make for good stories. In the title story, “Where the God of Love Hangs Out”, Ray, ducking into a seedy bar in Connecticut to watch the Steelers cream the Colts on the wide-screen TV, has a surprising encounter with his daughter-in-law, Macy, whom he has never seen ¿¿¿take a drink, let alone in a black bar at the ass end of Meriden.¿¿¿ Moving from the bar to a booth, they take turns revealing shameful secrets that power the story to its moving conclusion.
Macy confesses that her love for her husband, Ray's son, is far from what it seems. "I don't mean he doesn't know my essence on some metaphysical level," she says. "I mean I have lied to him on a million different occasions about a million things." After she explains how she rose out of poverty by doing hair and makeup for transvestites during high school, eventually winning a scholarship to Bryn Mawr, Ray, dispensing with the fatherly bromides he's been spouting, offers a revelation of his own: When he was in college, he let a friend who was ashamed of his homosexuality pay for the privilege of giving him blow jobs. And that's not all Ray is hiding behind his East Coast liberal veneer of bland congeniality. A waitress half his age who works in the local coffee shop has caught his eye. He thinks he's in love with her. He thinks he might leave his wife, Ellie, for her.
Macy encourages him to go for it, if he thinks it will make him happy, but Ray's second thoughts win out. As story ends, with a glimpse of Ray and Ellie in the bedroom, the triumph of love in late middle age has rarely seemed so fragile and tenuous: "He saw the creases at her neck and between her breasts, the tiny pleats at her underarms, the little pillow of flesh under her sharp chin, and he thought, She must be seeing the same thing."
In "Sleepwalking," one of three stories in this collection that have appeared in her earlier books, Bloom explores with similar sensitivity the dark feelings of rivalry and sexual longing that erupt after the death of a spouse. Julia, a white woman mourning the death of her black husband, a famous jazz musician, attempts to comfort her teenage stepson, Lionel, who is twenty years younger, and ends up regretting their outpouring of love and grief for the rest of her life.
In the stories that trace the development of Julia and Lionel¿¿¿s relationship in the aftermath of this terrifying but strangely healing night, Bloom does not flinch from depicting the thorny aspects of their personalities. In an unguarded moment, Lionel, who has become a successful lawyer in France, returns home for Thanksgiving and tells Julia that she doesn't have to worry, he wasn't ruined by what happened between them. He doesn't mean it, of course, but Julia's wounded pride can't stop her from snapping at him.
"Do you really want to have this conversation?" she asks. "Nope," he replies with swaggering disingenuousness. "I don't want anything but a little peace and quiet and a Lexus. I'm easy, Ma."
Only at the end of the quartet of stories devoted to Julia and Lionel do we realize the depth of their loneliness and how ill-equipped they are as humans to improve their communication. Like the lovers in the other set of linked stories in the collection, Julia and Lionel's story doesn't really end at all. Nothing is resolved, Bloom seems to be saying, because the most important things in life are never soluble anyway.
Prone to destructive acts, hardened but not quite defeated by the confusions of middle age, Bloom's characters offer convincing proof of the mystery of existence that glitters just below the surface of ordinary life. By capturing her subjects at their most vulnerable and real moments, Bloom transmits to her readers the deep satisfaction of reconnecting with their own deeper selves in new ways.
Conan Putnam is a Bay-Area writer whose fiction and articles have appeared in Other Voices, The Sewanee Review and Real Simple magazine.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun