When you turn to the first page and read the first paragraph of the first story (“Brownies”) of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, ZZ Packer’s strong, confident voice crashes over you like a wave:
By our second day at Camp Crescendo, the girls in my Brownie troop had decided to kick the asses of each and every girl in Brownie Troop 909. Troop 909 was doomed from the first day of camp; they were white girls, their complexions a blend of ice cream: strawberry, vanilla. They turtled out from their bus in pairs, their rolled-up sleeping bags chromatized with Disney characters: Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Mickey Mouse; or the generic ones cheap parents bought: washed-out rainbows, unicorns, curly-eyelashed frogs. Some clutched Igloo coolers and still others held on to stuffed toys like pacifiers, looking all around them like tourists determined to be dazzled.
From that point forward, everything else is undertow.
Packerâ€“whose much-lauded stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s and the late great Storyâ€“arrives on the already-crowded short fiction market with all the fiery energy of Flannery O’Connor on a good day. Not only is her writing crisp and sharp, but Packer has a firm hold on each of her pitiable characters, most of whom are black teenage girls. She knows their hopes, their anxieties, their resounding disappointments.
In “Brownies,” a group of black Girl Scouts prepare to take revenge on a troop of white Scouts for a perceived racial insult. Nothing turns out as expectedâ€“for the Brownies or for readers, and the narrator, a loner nicknamed “Snot,” gradually comes to realize “there was something mean in the world that I could not stop.”
In “Every Tongue Shall Confess,” Sister Clareese sings in the choir of the Greater Christ Emmanuel Pentecostal Church of the Fire Baptized and during the rest of the week at her nursing job, tries to convert an obstinate patient who mocks her at every turn. She straps on the Breastplate of Righteousness and marches forward, undaunted as Mrs. May on the horns of the bull in O’Connor’s “Greenleaf.”
In “The Ant of the Self,” a teenage debate-team champ picks his father up from jail and reluctantly drives him to the Million Man March in Washington, D.C. The ne’er-do-well father hopes to sell exotic birds to “the Afrocentric folks there.” The chagrined son tells us, “He’s so stupid, he’s brilliant; so outside of the realm of any rationality that reason stammers and stutters when facing him.”
Other stories put us in the gritty terrain of drugs and prostitution in Atlanta, an unruly classroom in Baltimore, and a lunch counter in 1961 where a young black girl stages a mini sit-in protest. Packer never condescends to her characters, or the reader, as she tells the tales in voices that vibrate with wit, anger and wisdom.
Though race and religion play an important part in Packer’s fiction, they line the periphery and never intrude on the author’s central concern: illuminating lives that are instantly familiar to us, no matter what the color of our skin or the dogma of our church happens to be.
As William Strunk once advised would-be writers: “Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”
Nothing is wasted in a ZZ Packer story; every word relentlessly moves the reader forward to climaxes that sometimes leave us dangling in mid-air and sometimes bring us crashing down with, in the case of “Our Lady of Peace,” three final, devastating words (“C’mon. Make me. “).
On every page of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, you feel the suck of the under-pulling water. Don’t try to resist. Just let yourself drown in her words.