The path to self-actualization includes sabotage. It is crowded and messy. It trips us on the worn out shoestrings of our relation to the world. Our actions and ignorance stop us at the border, asking for passports. Staggerwing is an excellent representation of the ways people choke while trying to reach the pinnacle of adequate personal knowledge of themselves. The author, Alice Kaltman, gives us an opportunity to laugh at the human situation, as it pertains to others, and at their peculiar ways for finding more rewarding lives. She helps us see a portion of ourselves in these characters. But there is more to this set of stories than our amusement of folks with existentially scabby knees. The bigger message is that few of us reach our goal.
Boredom can be dangerous, and reality can be crappy. In the first short story from Kaltman’s debut collection, the feeling of purposelessness (brought on by boredom) provokes a woman to extreme irrationality. It is almost laughable to a point: how long can the downward spiral of an emotional necrophiliac stay humorous? The author’s wittiness is surface funny and depth dark throughout the collection, and I loved it.
This first story in the collection, “Stay A While,” at first blush, relies somewhat on clichés to expose the character’s motivation and action. For me, this was initially off-putting, but after some reflective time, I found Kaltman’s use of cliché to be a contribution to the story and a vehicle to prove purposelessness and boredom have the power to infiltrate our language.
In the following story, “Freedom,” a relationship casualty finds a physically self-punishing way to overcome anger, and an unpredictable encounter gives him some relief. After the title story, the third piece, “Boss Man,” may be my favorite. “Boss Man” exposes the union, or disunion, of authenticity and accomplishment. In it, a discredited professional woman allows a shameful experience to hammer her into a disliked persona of housewife and hostess. It is an excellent spin on the surprise dinner guest form. To say more would ruin the reader’s enjoyment of Kaltman’s memorable imagination. Laughs to be had, but consideration should be given to what one perceives as realistic and the nature of what one finds funny. In “Snow Day!,” an epistolary piece, three characters meet at the intersection of snow, self-absorption, immaturity, and entitlement.
In the accurately named “Blossoms,” a teenaged Ellie’s mind constantly defines her in relation to what she is not. The story has the most-original-in-the-world event of budding self-discovery ever. “Blossoms” is absolutely not to be missed: Humor mixed with the totally inappropriate. Kaltman arrests the laughable and the disconcerting at the same time.
Kaltman’s stories in the later half of collection investigate wide issues like defining oneself by the absence of another, dissatisfaction as a boundary to realizing self-awareness, and the burden of perfection with its resultant feelings of personal disconsolation (once you are perfect, there is nowhere else to go). In addition, I found Kaltman’s treatment of many other themes to be well developed, such as: the unmooring of women by body-based reactions to them, the personal misery caused by attaching one’s worth to the judgement of others, and the rippling instability of repositioned roles in a relationship. My failure to mention humor about these additional stories does not mean it is absent. For me, there were funny parts, but they held an element of sadness, too.
The story is a vehicle that you can either drive or walk. You can fly by for a laugh or pick up the hitchhiker of your mind and have a discussion with the text.
Most important is the title story. “Staggerwing” churns up personal meaning for me. I am touched by it. It is based on tender misunderstandings, the limitations of caretaking, the wish to define oneself while caught in the stickiness of cultural confusion, and the inescapable nature of unwelcome demands. This story treats the danger of self-doubt better than many similar stories I’ve read or films I’ve seen. I’ve read a very large number of Flannery O’Connor Award winning short story collections, and I think this particular tale would hold up well under comparison to many of those. The book-cover folks soft-push Kaltman’s collection as humor-based, but this specific story is very serious.
A Staggerwing is a type of airplane that has two horizontal wings on each side, with the upper wing positioned further back along the fuselage than the lower. These planes were first manufactured in 1932 with wealthy executives as a target market. In1932. They were obviously an optimistic crew during the depths of the Great Depression, producing the Lear Jet of the day with much less cabin space. I want to generate some metaphorical importance of a Staggerwing aircraft to the collection of stories. I’m unsuccessful. The story with the same name makes frequent references to fitting and fitting in—or not—to a plane and to a life. Each story in the book has a misfit as a primary character. Maybe their worlds are too small (like the plane) or there’s no solid ground beneath them (like the plane). Some people are ahead or behind all the time? Regardless of whether I’ve delved into the totality of meaning, here, it’s important to know “Staggerwing” is the best story in the volume. That, in itself, is enough. As I said, I love it.
Staggerwing (both the story and the book) can be read casually and can be very pleasant, but as a reader who dissects stories—I mark up everything I read with a highlighter and red and blue pens—the book, as a whole, is not simply a cute collection. If you’re considering some thematic careful reading, Kaltman’s stories are sure to satisfy. If you’re looking for humor, you will find some here, no doubt. To me, the story is a vehicle that you can either drive or walk. You can fly by for a laugh or pick up the hitchhiker of your mind and have a discussion with the text. Or maybe stay alone between the ears. All scenarios acceptable.
Writing eleven stories packed with multiple layers, including light/dark humor and the kaleidoscope of human happenstance, is a difficult task. Kaltman’s work makes a fine book and a very fine debut. It is extremely worth the read. I’m calling for an encore, please.