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My Town Is America: On Chris Stuck's “Give My Love to the Savages” – lareviewofbooks

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September 25, 2021   •   By Damien Belliveau
Give My Love to the Savages
Chris Stuck
IN A RECENT online reading hosted by Book Soup, moderator Chris L. Terry pointed out that, despite author Chris Stuck being mixed (his Instagram handle is @super_biracial_man), the characters he writes about tend to be black. Stuck admitted that this is true but quickly clarified by adding, “I’m writing about Americans.”
Stuck doesn’t avoid race completely, of course. The first story in the collection, “Every Time They Call You Nigger,” deals with bigotry and ignorance head-on, the title leaving no mystery as to what the piece is about. And the third story, “Lake No Negro,” is a clear predecessor to Jordan Peele’s 2017 film Get Out (minus the sci-fi elements). In both stories, however, Stuck’s commitment to investigating the depths of his characters prevents the narratives from becoming wholly about color.
This is not a book that sets out to document all the ways in which being a person with brown skin somehow predisposes one to social violence. What Stuck does with his stories is create worlds where African Americans of various skin tones serve as protagonists in narratives that have little or nothing to do with their being racialized or othered, and more to do with their existence as complex, nuanced, three-dimensional people.
“And Then We Were the Norrises” follows a family that has had to go into the witness protection program due to the patriarch’s shady business dealings on the East Coast. Because the story’s teenaged protagonist, Chuck, is incapable of keeping the family secret, the Norrises have moved and been renamed multiple times. New to Phoenix, Arizona, Chuck is an instant outsider, and as such he befriends another loner, a long-haired white boy named Sterling Silver who rocks the same Judas Priest shirt every single day. The boys become friends, ride bikes together, and read porno mags in hollowed-out patches of shrubs. Chuck is coming to terms with his sexuality, and while Sterling marvels at the women in the magazines, Chuck is no less curious about the men.
Despite Chuck’s family moving to ever-whiter locations, race is not the focus of the stories, but rather class. We learn that Chuck’s real name is Bernard Black, XV, and that he is descended from a line of wealthy African Americans, a lineage that can be traced all the way back to the 1700s, to a freed slave who amassed riches because he was a “whiz with figures.” The Black family’s fortunes only increased over the centuries. When Sterling first invites Chuck to his home, a janky trailer on the outskirts of town, he is hesitant to bring his new friend inside. When Chuck asks what’s wrong, Sterling kicks a rock and says, “It’s just that you’re rich.” Stuck implies that Sterling has witnessed behaviors echoing what the narrator has already told the reader — that Chuck’s behavior is more the product of his class than his color — and the power of this coming-of-age story is largely attributable to that underlying tension.
Humor is Stuck’s most powerful weapon. “Cowboys” follows two working-class museum guards, one black and one white, who get drunk, get baked, and spend most of their evenings lamenting failed romances. The tone of the piece is reminiscent of a Coen brothers comedy (think Raising Arizona or O Brother, Where Art Thou?). Stuck makes sure that the emotional dimensions of his characters are sincere, but the dry, straightforward way he presents the comedic passages positions him as a satirist with heart. He moves from drama to comedy to absurdity and back again with ease.
In “Chuck and Tina Go on Vacation,” a married couple decide to take a holiday in order to keep pace with their social-media-savvy friends. Their unspoken goal, however, is to reinvigorate their 15-year-old relationship. But instead of rekindling their romance and capturing Instagram-worthy moments, Chuck gets sick and Tina wanders the streets alone, stoned, reflecting on whether or not she even wants to be in a relationship. It’s a funny, tender, and well-observed story about people wrestling with universal questions about long-term relationships, commitment, and disappointment.
The collection’s namesake story, “Give My Love to the Savages,” is set during the social uprising that followed the Rodney King verdict in 1992. It’s another example of Stuck finding a bold, attention-grabbing situation and using it as a backdrop for something personal. The story is about the complicated love that exists between a long-absent father and his college-age son, a boy who was raised without strong male role models, fell in with the wrong crowd, and almost ended up in prison. The “bad” kids are white prep-school types, and the protagonist, whose father is white while his mother is black, manages to avoid jail because his father hooks him up with an unscrupulous attorney. “Give My Love to the Savages” is a story concerned with the possibility of forgiveness, of one’s parents and of oneself. But it’s also a narrative about how being of mixed ethnicity can be a source of both social freedom and personal isolation.
“This Isn’t Music” made the strongest impression on me. The story, which takes place in a small town in rural Missouri, follows two best friends — a man named Nick and a woman named Billie. Their relationship began as platonic in their teens, evolved into a romantic entanglement, then shifted to a long-distance friendship when Nick moved away for college. Years passed. Each of them married other people. Then, when Nick became disillusioned with his life as a writer and teacher, he moved back home and got a job at the quarry that employs most of the town. Reunited, the two friends are now engaged in an affair that neither is particularly excited about. Nick and Billie are the only black people in Rock City, and they mostly address one another, playfully, as Black Boy and Black Girl. No one else in town ever refers to their color, but they’re not really given the opportunity.
Stuck keeps the narrative tightly focused on these two characters, with a few brief flashbacks featuring Nick’s homemaker wife and his dementia-afflicted father. “This Isn’t Music” has the quality of a stage play. The bulk of the story takes place in a bar, with the couple seated opposite one another in a booth. It’s written in the second person, so even though the protagonist is named Nick, he’s mostly “You” and often “Black Boy” when addressed by Billie. There’s something about the way Stuck depicts Nick and Billie that suggests the thing that brought them together — being the only black people in an otherwise white town — isn’t enough to sustain their relationship any longer. She’s a tomboy; he’s an intellectual. She’s loud and brash and impulsive; he’s anxious and insecure and indecisive. She’s a buffed ex-arm-wrestling champ working on her 12th beer, and he’s drunk off his second. Their conversation is almost exclusively focused on race, not because anything racist has happened to them but because they are each cheating on white people, and their mutual infidelity connects them as much as their skin color. By the end of this tale, Nick seems ready to abandon the relationship. He’s over it, all of it. But then there is a moment, an inspired beat where Stuck suggests that their connection, their friendship, is about more than color and more than sex. It’s about having someone to experience life with — that having someone who is willing to speed into the unknown by your side is worth holding on to, at least for one more night.
Two weeks after his conversation with Terry for Book Soup, Stuck participated in another online event hosted by Chevalier Books. The moderator, Dana Johnson, questioned Stuck about the variety of settings featured in his collection. Acknowledging his decision to set the stories in cities all across the United States, Stuck reiterated his focus on being an American storyteller. Invoking Edward P. Jones’s commitment to Washington, DC, Stuck remarked that it’s common practice for authors to center the town where they grew up. “I wanted my town to be America,” he said.
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A 2020 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow, Damien Belliveau is a native of the San Francisco Bay Area and a veteran of the United States Army. He is currently completing a collection of short stories inspired by his time serving as an Army medic during the mid-1990s.
Damien Belliveau
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