My childhood mailbox wasn't bolted to the house. It wasn't nailed to a wooden post at the end of the driveway, either. Especially in the summer, checking the mail was an event. At ten to 11, the streets of Virginia Hills emptied of kids long enough for us to retreive the mail key from inside our respective homes, taking care not to slam the screen doors before reconvening, filing one-by-one into the parade. A half-mile procession to the recreation hall, where once inside, we were rewarded for our efforts with a blast of ice-cold air. Staring at the wall of silver, we held our collective breath - hedging silent bets. When we turned the key, would there be a child-support check or a stack of utility bills? A letter from a boy or an empty echo?
Summer always makes me nostalgic for letters. Hand-written, stamped, and sometimes even S.W.A.K.ed. What could be better than a letter? Better than reading words meant only for you, as if language had been invented for that singular purpose? A child-support check, of course. But other than that, not much. However, a letter in a story or book can be almost as satisfying, sometimes even more so, when it allows us to anonymously appease our inner voyeur.
Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Clearly ranks among my favorite books from childhood. Unfortunately, in modern literature, the epistolary form is often regarded as passe'. Often but not always, as in the case of a story called "It Looks Like This" by Caitlin Horrocks. Having read several of Caitlin's stories in various literary journals, I was pleased to find her collection of short fiction This Is Not Your City featured prominently on the "Discover New Writers" shelf at Barnes and Noble.
"It Looks Like This" is a story about an 18 year old girl whose mother suffers from crippling arthritis. A girl too busy caring for her mother to pass 12th grade and writes a letter to a former teacher, explicating the details of her life for extra credit. Supplemented by clip art, a diagram of the Pythagorean Theorem, and thumbnail photographs, this story brilliantly acheives the look of a school report. But much like a Brandi Carlile song, it reaches a painful epiphany - like a guttoral scream - in the spaces the writer leaves blank.
Another solidly written story told in letters is "Luckily, Lucy Sims Has No Stamps" by Shellie Zacharia. A master of the flash format, Shellie reveals the sad story of Lucy Sims' life (to hysterical effect) through notes written to Bed Bath & Beyond, the Manager of Primo Italian Cafe, a seventh grade English teacher, an ex-husband named Bill, the parents of Lucy Sims' elementary-aged students, and her former mother-in-law. I love intelligently written absurdity. It's like candied beets: a treat that's also good for me. This story and many fine others can be found in Shellie's book Now Playing.
Although not written in letters, Stewart O'Nan's latest novel Emily, Alone offers a portal into the mind of the book's namesake. Without giving anything away, I think it's safe to say that nothing really happens. There are no plot-turning moments. No cliff-hangars. No catastrophic highs or lows. But somehow, I don't care. Never mind the fact that the book is set in Pittsburgh, which is great for those of us on the home team - the references to Eat-n-Park and the Ft. Pitt Tunnels rended with as much loving detail as the descriptions of a Van Gogh exhibit and the array of dog droppings emerging during the spring thaw. What makes this book special is being privy to Emily's thoughts. Thoughts we might not think an old woman would have. Almost as if she's willed us her diary and rather than wait until she passes, we sneak a peek at the envelope - pretending to be upstairs in the bathroom while she makes us a nice cup of tea.
In an interview appearing in this week's New York Times Magazine, Nicholson Baker (author of several unconventional novels including The Anthologist, which is really funny) said this about trying to write a traditional novel: "I get to the point where there should be a major thing that goes wrong and I don't want it to happen. It doesn't feel true to me. I don't feel entitled, because very few bad things have happened to me."
When faced with photographs of emaciated children - literally starving to death in Somalia, most of us would be hard pressed to disagree with Mr. Baker. And maybe Stewart O'Nan had the same idea in mind - that nothing truly awful had ever happened to Emily and pretending that it had would feel false on the page. But there is one thing we can all be certain of, one inescapable similarity. One day we'll turn the key to find our final notice has arrived.
But hopefully, someone will find the letters we wrote to our mothers from camp; to our seventh grade boyfriends over a summer break; to our brothers and sisters away at college - long-distance friends, future husbands and wives - and know that we were here.