Islander

Julie Hecht’s self-help
By JON GARELICK  |  July 22, 2008

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LIFE’S STORIES: Hecht’s narratives unfold like elaborate improvisations.

Happy Trails to You | By Julie Hecht | Simon & Schuster | 224 pages | $24
There’s still time to spend some of your summer with Julie Hecht. She’s been winning awards for her short stories almost since she began publishing them, first in Harper’s in the ’70s and then in the New Yorker starting in the early ’90s. Her two collections and one novel are told in the same first-person voice: that of an unnamed photographer who splits her time between East Hampton in the winter and Nantucket in the summer. Prickly, anxiety-ridden, deadpan-funny, vegan, this narrator doesn’t sound much different from her creator in the rare interview Hecht gave to the Believer in May. The jacket flaps of all Hecht’s books (which also include a collection of “talks” with Andy Kaufman, Was This Man a Genius?) provide the same bio: “She lives on the east end of Long Island in the winter and in Massachusetts in summer and fall.” The same author photo has been published with all four books.

Hecht’s stories read like elaborate improvisations. Almost plotless, they recount a loosely related series of events, all embellished with the narrator’s singular social observations, free associations, phobias, and obsessions. The title story of her first collection, Do the Windows Open?, is ostensibly about trying to overcome her fear of taking the South Fork bus from East Hampton to Manhattan. (The title gives you an idea of the base level of anxiety.) The recurring themes and characters include an unnamed husband who floats through the background offering commentary like a one-man Greek chorus. One character is referred to by a phrase that’s repeated verbatim and functions like a call-back in a comedy routine: “the world-renowned reproductive surgeon Dr. Arnold Loquesto.”

Hecht told the Believer that when people ask her what her stories are about she says, “They’re about the way things are now.” The domestic is always yoked to the global or the infinite, in the space of a paragraph, or even a sentence. And everywhere Hecht is marking civilization’s decline: from personal etiquette and the degradation of the English language to fashion to international catastrophes, the “Alfred E. Neuman president” and “the globally warmed-up days.”

The stories in her new collection, Happy Trails to You, are more topical than in Do the Windows Open?, placed in historical time by their references to Bill Clinton’s sexual travails and John Kerry’s presidential bid. (Kerry’s comings and goings as a summer Nantucket resident are noted.) The tone is Hecht at her most expansive, lyrical, elegiac, and pained. The narrator tries cooking cranberry bread for an elderly neighbor, visits a sprawling family whose boisterous life she compares with the spare, lonely simplicity of her husband and herself, talks with her Jamaican housekeeper about money, advises two young women friends on the best remedies for menstrual cramps, and corrects people’s grammar.

“I was thinking about the world,” she says at one point. “This was a mistake and can lead to insanity.” She finds reassurance in Mozart and Elvis Presley, in Schubert’s Trout Quintet, and in the lost-world noirs of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt and Orson Welles’s The Stranger. She compares her life with that of her dead parents and remembers them. Somehow, in each story, she pulls the detritus of events and observations together for soft-bomb epiphanies. Her childhood brings back memories of John Raitt singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” And of John’s relationship with Bonnie. Another parent and daughter. Life is revealed, eloquently, as an ineffable mystery. “The best would be to live it all over, from the beginning,” Hecht’s narrator concludes. “This time I could do it right.”

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  Topics: Books , Elvis Presley, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Bill Clinton,  More more >
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