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ZZ Packer: Drinking Coffee Elsewhere


Drinking Coffee Elsewhere

Author: ZZ Packer
Publisher: Riverhead

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Things simply made all of them cry and sigh," writes ZZ Packer, halfway through building the tension around four disjointed foreigners sharing a one-room Tokyo flat and wriggling beneath the weight of displacement in a story called "Geese." All of the tropes–the muted resignation, the spare language, the portentous symbol of the title–signal the tone of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, a debut short-story collection that courts blandness and boldness through slow, moody spells. The players in "Geese" come from all over, but the main character, a black woman from Baltimore, fits Elsewhere's recurring mold: that of black Americans confined to role-play, but rootless even in their restrictions. Racism serves a critical function in all of Packer's stories, but at her best, she spies it from a distance that casts a watchful eye on the sad self-imposition underlying its fated reality. Too young and naïve to know any better, the young girls in "Brownies" spark up an us-against-them rumble against a white Brownie troupe, slinging suspect accusations in an effort to sample the discrimination they've heard about, but not yet experienced. The girls go about their business with an almost eager curiosity, but their willed unity fans into bemusement and confusion as Elsewhere's characters move up in age and complexity. In "Our Lady Of Peace," a dejected teacher goes through the motions alongside unruly high-school students who lead her toward a violent end that feels less instigated than submitted to. Notions of lost faith persist throughout the book, as characters question their way through acquiescent back-slapping and empty rituals. Church and the Million Man March serve similar ends in different stories, providing a communal setting for sealed-off characters who are equally uneasy with participation and isolation. Not much of a stylist, Packer pitches her stories against a uniformly stoic backdrop in which knife fights and molestation take on the same tenor as uneventful errand runs. Too much of Elsewhere feels belabored and stripped of personality, but the author's pronounced mistrust of resolution tempers her overbearing tendencies. Some of the flat stories consign readers to the quiet remove of Parker's characters, but for all of its suffocating stretches, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere hisses like a sigh blown through teeth clenched in anger and forgiveness.