On Babies, Death and Jamey Genna

Throw the baby away? Can we imagine that? I’m not talking abortion, I’m talking about a mother who throws her baby away…into a garbage dump. Is that person a murderer? These are the thoughts that rocketed through my head after reading Pushcart Prize nominee, Jamey Genna’s short story “The Wind Chill Factor Kicked In.” The prose in this short-short story is tight and searing:

Then, one day during the search, the deputy found a strange note—it was scribbled on an envelope.

The baby is here, it said, or it said, look here for the baby.

That’s what they said it said. The winter was a long one, mild in December, but during January—the wind chill factor kicked in.

Look for the baby here it said.

Jamey Genna writes literary fiction. She writes short essays and poetry. Her recent book, Stories I Heard When I Went Home For My Grandmother’s Funeral, is a compilation of fiction. The stories, twenty-one in all, are gritty, realistic pieces, the kind of fiction Jamey would call Dirty Realism, which is a name for a sub-genre that focuses on the tougher side of life in spare, lean language.

Some of the best stories in this collection are very short and fit the description of Dirty Realism at its best. The language is often mean, hard and lean. And it is also quirky. When you first pick up a story by Genna, you question the word choice, the syntax, but you soon get it…this is the voice of a narrator who speaks to us in a quirky vernacular that may be a result of family influences, regional dialect…but who cares. The voice mirrors the subject matter of the stories; family, lovers, husbands, all revealed as if caught beneath the glare of a police interrogation lamp. We see the shadows and nicks, the wrinkles caused by sadness, and yes by laughter. The characters in this collection are complex…they do good things and they do bad things. They covet, they cheat, they love, they admire.

The folks in these stories really talk to me. They are like the women and men I’ve known in my life. That’s why I prefer to read literary fiction. Unlike popular fiction where the plot generally drives the narrative, the characters in literary fiction—in Genna’s tales—are unpredictable, like many of us. And that unpredictability creates plots that keep us on edge because we don’t know what these people are going to do.

One of my favorites in Genna’s collection, a story I first read almost fifteen years ago, is “The Light in the Alley.” This story captures the death of an infant in a large family. The parents fumble and stumble around as they try to cope with the loss of this precious child. But the story is much more complicated than just a rendition of an infant’s demise. It exposes the family’s…how should I say this? complicity? inadvertent participation? involvement? in this child’s death. And despite the narrative’s complications, these people are truly stunned by the loss, their sadness indicative of a spiritual evisceration.

Another of my favorites, a very short-short story titled “Dry and Yellow,” shows us a young woman spending some time with an ex-husband, Lee, and his mother. The prose is hard and tough and poignant. An excerpt:

I hadn’t divorced just Lee, I’d left her behind, too and hadn’t wanted to maintain a relationship because of Lee’s new wife. And because it hurt to see his new life sitting on his mother’s mantle. What I mean to say is that his mother must’ve loved me too, and she didn’t get any explanation. Just like my mom saying, “I loved him. But you don’t suppose he’d ever stop by or call if he was in town.” And I said, “No, mom, I don’t suppose he would.”

Most of the pieces in this compilation have been published in periodicals and magazines, both print and online. And if you like stories with flawed characters who have tough rows to hoe and whose choices may not be in their own best interest, then I recommend Genna’s book.

You can find Stories I Heard When I Went Home For My Grandmother’s Funeral on Amazon at here.

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