The Fry Pans Aren't Sufficing
By Peyton Burgess
Reviewed by Tom Andes
If short stories live in the vernacular, and if they speak for "submerged population groups," as Frank O'Connor says in The Lonely Voice, then Peyton Burgess's The Fry Pans Aren't Sufficing nails the idiom of a particular subset of the white southern lower-middle class in post-Katrina New Orleans. Not exactly proletarian—culturally advantaged but economically foundering—Burgess's people are restaurant workers and adjunct professors. They struggle to get by, and no amount of educational attainment can insulate them from the ravages of a disaster like Katrina.
In the first three linked stories—which almost coalesce into a novella—Gil and Baby Girl meander back to New Orleans from Atlanta after the storm. The closer they get to home, the more the things they rely on fail, until they find New Orleans under a curfew that resembles martial law. "A couple months ago Thibodeaux was working sous-chef at a damn fine restaurant and making some of the best redfish almandine in the city," Gil tells us at the beginning of "Disaster Relief." Now Thibodeaux is flipping burgers on a mini grill in front of Gil and Baby Girl's favorite French Quarter bar. "'You could make a turd taste good,'" Baby Girl tells him.
In "On the Way End," Gil and Baby Girl break down in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, the Jetta they bought with FEMA money bursting into flames and exploding by the side of Interstate 59 in a scene with just the right touches of pathos and comedy. Stymied at Hertz, which has no rentals, and having attracted the attention of a cop, who takes an intense disliking to Gil, he and Baby Girl meet Antoine. As bad as Gil and Baby Girl have it, they're better off than Antoine, and they know it. Discharged from an overcrowded hospital after a heart attack and left to his own devices when he obviously needs care, enormously overweight and riddled with bedsores, Antoine has experienced a level of institutional neglect that Gil and Baby Girl simply can't comprehend.
When Gil expresses indignation at Antoine's treatment, Antoine elaborates: "'Yeah, some white boy look like you. All upset and yelling about how it all unfair. I thought to myself, I don't need to come to a hospital for some white boy to tell me I'm fucked because I'm poor and black.'" Yet in one of the most moving moments in the book, Antoine gives Gil and Baby Girl his car—at what cost to himself, we can only wonder—so they can get home.
We like Gil in part because he knows he doesn't necessarily deserve Antoine's kindness. He might be a miscreant—he has a warrant out for his arrest—but he's also a sensitive and perceptive chronicler of the world. Ditto Mitch, the adjunct professor who narrates "Koala Conception." Though he bemoans his plight as an exploited academic, Mitch understands how relatively well off he is, at least when compared to students like Keith, who works at Wal-Mart and takes the bus to campus:
It wasn't that I was ungrateful for the adjunct gigs; I liked working with the students, but there's this weird duality: the privilege of even having the advance degree that makes you qualified for an adjunct gig at a community college, which then pays you so little, which makes it a fucking privilege to be so broke.
Like Gil, Mitch lives on the margins but not quite on the edge, down but not all the way out.
The other stories run the gamut from literary realism to satire to surrealism ("Koala Conception" is literal: Mitch's wife Reb is pregnant with a koala), and they take place across the United States, in locations from New York to Hawaii. Nevertheless, the book's center of gravity falls squarely in the middle: in New Orleans. Often as not, the farther away from Hurricane Katrina the stories get in time and space, the more fantastic they become, as if to suggest that in the aftermath of disaster, normal life ceases to make sense. Many characters, such as Kyle, "a refugee from a flooded city back in the mainland," who finds a surrogate for his deceased girlfriend in her sister in "She Has the Room Above Him and He Has the Room Next to Her," experience geographical dislocation. Two of the stranger—and more hilarious—stories, "Nauman's Installation" and "Time of Delivery," satirize northern cultural institutions: the Chicago Art Institute and The New Yorker, respectively. And "Grancy and Bapoo Are Good Grandparents" manages to do justice to a very different—yet no less weird—New Orleans than the one Gil and Mitch live in.
Certain of the flash fictions seem less developed than others: glimpses that don't quite pan out, lacking the heft of the stories. Nevertheless, they resonate thematically, and some, like "Belatone Island Has Seven Residents: Our Maws and Paws, You, Me, and Micro," are too funny for it to matter. (You can't beat this book for titles.) In the end, the voice ties the stories together: between Gil and Mitch, whose first-person narratives bookend the collection, we encounter ten more oddballs, losers, and eccentrics, each of whom has something to tell us.
By now, it's a truism that southerners are great storytellers. Burgess's people seem like talkers, and they speak in a recognizable vernacular: southern, hip, and contemporary, clued in to pop culture, and aware of how they are both the victims of and complicit in the gross injustices they bear witness to. They're survivors, as well: of Katrina, of course, but also of deeply personal losses, and the wrongs we all suffer under late-stage capitalism. The moments of empathy between Gil and Baby Girl and Antoine, between Mitch and Keith, and between Kyle and Mele linger. The book thus makes the quietly revolutionary point that despite what the authoritarians tell us, disaster does not always bring out the worst in human beings, nor does it justify the egregious use of force (hence the fact the cops are the only characters in the book portrayed without sympathy or nuance). Of course, we should never hope for a fraying social fabric. But without flinching from the toll of institutional violence, poverty, and racism, Burgess suggests that even and especially in the face of the worst, we connect to survive.