The Good Life, by Erin McGraw
The only thing I didn’t like about The Good Life, a collection of stories by Erin McGraw, was that it ended. I would have liked for the book and each story within to go on and on.
In its core this is a book about relationships–all types of relationships: marital, extra-marital, friendships, mentorships, and those relationships we have with people we don’t necessarily care for but are thrust into nonetheless. It’s about how when we should be living the good life–when we may have or are close to everything we ever wanted–there is still that tickle inside, that mosquito of self-doubt that creeps in.
On the one hand, the good life, then, is mythical, unattainable. And, on the other, the good life is now. Right now. Whatever you are living is it, because it is all about being alive and breathing in that moment.
I was struck dumb by how easily McGraw put herself into the world of a Catholic seminary (time and again) and created a vision that seems not only real but entirely plausible. Also, into the world of a dancer, a singer, and a tortured writer of self-help books. From reading all of these various points of view, one gets the impression McGraw is an expert observer of the human condition. She understands fear, she gets loneliness, longing.
If pressed to pick out a favorite story (among all these favorites), I would have to say that the final story of the collection, “One for My Baby” is the story that will stick with me the longest (likely because it was the one I read last but mostly because it has an impossibly, tragically funny scene that involves spreading ashes and pigeons and a hawk). It is a love story between a man and a woman and a woman and an ideal love–none of these things coming together at the right time until the very end.
It is about love that does not die even when it gets hit by a bus–it is love between friends which is always more and never enough. Aless has agreed to hike up into the Sierra Nevada with Patrick, the man she loves but who is pining for his dead wife, Eleanora. They are meant to be spreading Eleanora’s ashes in her favorite place but when things go awry, they end up making do and with this comes a breakthrough, a moment of letting go and reawakening:
“Would you teach me to sing?” he says.
For an interesting moment, the world turns white. Aless can’t even see Patrick, although she hears his smooth voice, which has asked so many things. The asking never stops, nor the giving.
“Open your mouth,” she says. “Then make the biggest sound you can.”
He lets out a little croak. “More,” she says.
His second attempt is almost the same; she can see self-consciousness freezing his mouth. She taps his jaw, which she has never touched before. “Bigger! Yell! Raise the roof!” To show him what he should be doing, she opens her own mouth and lets sound pour out. For a moment her roar obliterates everything–wind and bird calls and distant, prowling creatures. Patrick stops and looks at her admiringly, and she gestures at him to join her. He opens his mouth again and does a little better.
McGraw seems to have an innate sense of how people think and speak and feel and move and that comes through beautifully in her stories. I was struck time and again by the naturalness of the dialogue–particularly that easy flow between friends who love (or don’t love) each other too much. It’s a wonderful collection. I hope you will read it.
For more information about her, here’s an interview with Erin McGrawon the Emerging Writers Network.