Lopez’s “Good People” Uneven But Charming

Good People, Robert Lopez’s latest short fiction collection, is like a younger sibling: Both are often irritating, but you want them in your life.

Lopez is the author of Asunder, Kamby Bolongo Mean River and Part of the World. Vol. 1 Brooklyn praised Asunder, Lopez’s first collection of stories, for its “precisely-crafted disorientation.” In its review of Kamby Bolongo Mean River, Bookslut compared Lopez to Samuel Beckett and praised the novel’s “grim humor and emotional influence.” Lopez’s work has also appeared in Threepenny Review, New Orleans Review and Blackbird

Most of the stories in Good People are in first-person. The shortest ones tend to be vague—far too much artful showing and not enough clear, basic telling. In “Family Man on the Isle of Wight,” Lopez offers a six-page monologue. The story might be about the narrator’s uncles, or another character’s uncle. There might be an actual battle. Maybe it’s metaphor for the French invasion of the Isle of Wight in the mid 1500’s The story is a single massive sentence, and while it is engaging in some spots, it feels like a performance art script gone wrong. Here is a bit of “Family Man’s” opening:

“Let me understand something to you, if we can take a moment together, spare a little time reaching out as we catch up over coffee because I know we’re all busy, we have things to do, there’s laundry, there’s what to have for dinner, there’s dental hygiene and all the rest, but for now let me say this, please if I may and then I’ll let me go, I promise, you can hold it to me, look at my face, see, do you see what I mean by the look on my face, good, I know, because I will swear a blood oath if that’s what you require . . .”

Two pages of phrase-stacking later, Lopez finally offers up “I haven’t been nowhere forever, there, I’ve said it . . .” Even later, Lopez offers this compelling imagery: “. . . look at the uncles, and all of them, on the battlefield, laying in waste, filthy, stained, years ago like this, every day, dying in each other’s arms, but not anymore . . .” It seems to go nowhere, however.

“Why We’re Trapped in a Failed System” is less cryptic but still problematic. Here, the reader gets a two-page summary of a troubled romantic relationship that might be heading to its conclusion. Or the two people in it are learning to argue better. Or not.

Nonetheless, right when it’s time to set the book aside, Lopez introduces several remarkable characters. True to the book’s title, the author excels at presenting good people. They are not the brightest people. They are not the most ethical, and they are mostly men. Some are not sane. But they are worthy of our empathy as they manage troubled pasts and challenging daily lives.

The narrator in “Welcome to Someplace Like Piscataway,” originally published in The American Reader, is a gambler trying to reconnect with his damaged sister. He specializes in poker and is trying to read tells from their childhood. The narrator offers the following about his youth:

“I can’t remember ever seeing my sister and mother and father all in the same place at the same time, not even at dinner. I’m not sure if my sister remembers all of this the same way. You can’t tell with her and also she might be crazy. She looks like someone who has spent time in a sanitarium. I think our father spent a lot of time at the park and on his way home he’d stop at the ROTC. I’d find flyers under my bedroom door almost every day.”

At the same time, the narrator is also trying to manage his latest wife, a fellow gambler who might be scamming him. Will the protagonist ever be Rotarian of the Year? Probably not. But you will wish him every success.

The protagonist in “Guiding Eyes for the Blind Dog Training School” is a childless smart-ass biding his time in suburbia with his wife:

“I don’t think I belong here, in this community, but I’m doing what I can, what’s expected. Everyone here wears golf shirts tucked into Bermuda shorts, and boat shoes. Everyone here drinks domestic beer from cans and has procreated at least once. They drive tanks, shuttling children to camp to hockey to soccer to arts and crafts to the mall.”

Later, our hero offers his stance on home maintenance: “There’s certain shit you have to do if you’re stupid enough to buy a house out here. You have to cut grass. You have to shovel snow . . . you have to rake leaves, but this is where I draw the line. There’s nothing so fucking pointless as raking leaves.” But his neighbors’ home catches fire, killing their son. By story’s end, the narrator all but admits to being changed by the tragedy, and begins to inch towards maturity.

If you haven’t noticed yet, Lopez can also be funny. “Anytime, Sweet” might be the most absurd and fantastic story ever set in a diner. “How to Direct a Major Motion Picture,” Good People’s final story (and co-written with Samuel Ligon), is a caustic, Machiavellian set of instructions that could either lead to an Oscar or to exile from the film industry. Probably the former.

Does every story in Good People work? No. But many do and are worth reading.

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