Kurt Gottschalk: Little Apples
Softcover; 184 pages
Stories about New York City tend to focus on the city's glamorous side. But in a population of eight million people, only a tiny slice of the city's residents actually live the Sex and the City lifestyle, wearing designer clothes while air-kissing at museum openings. Respected music journalist Kurt Gottschalk, whose work has appeared in All About Jazz, The Wire and Signal to Noise, has written an insightful and enormously entertaining book about those on the margins of what is, hands down, the greatest city in the world. (Sorry, Paris!).
The sixteen short stories in Little Apples are not about the Big Apple's movers and shakers, but instead describe the city's dog walkers, part-time teachers, found-object artists, jazz tambourinists and floundering Julliard graduates. These are people who live in ground-floor apartments next to the air shaft, who can't afford to pay the cover charge at the Village Vanguard, and whose mode of transportation is the subway or their own two feet. There's a gritty charm to be found in this lifestyle and a fair bit of humor as well, but there's also the tangible pathos of feeling lost and lonely in the midst of millions of people. To his great credit, Gottschalk manages to reveal all these sides of the city, and more.
Most of the stories concern artists of one form or another, but Gottschalk doesn't shrink from New York's seamy side. Characters find themselves at the notorious pickup joint Coyote Ugly, looking to take the edge off a lonely night, or add spice to a relationship with a body shot (Google for a definition). One of the most poignant stories concerns a trip to an S&M dungeon, where the narrator searches for an affectionate glance from his dominatrix, realizing he would much rather drink beer and watch a bad movie with her than anything else.
There are also four stories featuring a private eye named Buddy Zinn, who dispenses Taoist wisdom to uncomprehending clients. Gottschalk nails the hardboiled-detective lingo, with lines that would make Raymond Chandler proud: "Saying she had an hourglass figure would have been an understatementthe sand in that glass would take a week to pass through."
Gottschalk is a wry and accurate observer; he is masterful at finding his characters' vulnerable spots, but he never exploits their frailties, and always approaches them with heart. He has a gift for dialogue, both external and internal, and some of the most entertaining passages involve characters wrestling with their own thoughts. In his clean, crisp prose, Gottschalk manages precisely to convey the convoluted dance between thoughts and actions and other people's reactions: "You did what you did. It's OK, and it's OK to talk about it. And it's OK if you used it to impress people, too. It's not like you made it up. If something happens to you, it's yours to tell, isn't it?"
A deeper theme of the book concerns the nature of stories. The structure of the book shows the way stories endlessly intersect, as well as their elusiveness. One character misses his dead wife's stories, so he asks someone to make up stories for him. One of these tales pops up later as a Buddy Zinn mystery, but the diary that explains the backstory is in another character's possession. And of course, not all the stories are true: throughout the book the characters use stories to invent their identities as well as hide them, creating endless confusion for themselves and others. Gottschalk is wise enough not to answer these unanswerable questions about truth and identity and the human thirst for narrative, but this ongoing leitmotif adds richness to each and every tale in the book.
By the time the reader has finished Little Apples, they will have taken a journey through the physical landscape of New York, as well as the emotional lives of a cross section of New Yorkers, enjoying along the way Gottschalk's concise meditations on art, loneliness, jazz, money, creativity, romance and, yes, apples. Little Apples manages to be charming and wistful and blunt and interesting and funny all at one time, exactly like the city that inspired it.