by Evelyn Somers
Although she passed away in August, 2014, Wendi Harris Kaufman’s Facebook page was still active when I viewed it recently. I was trying to learn more about the life of an emerging writer whose name was fairly new to me and whose writing I had missed while she was alive. I discovered we had had 72 mutual “friends”—writers, of course—which confirmed what I had already heard about Kaufman—that she was both a supporter and creator of literary community, having, among many other endeavors, founded and curated The Happy Booker, a blog about the literary scene in Washington, DC, and beyond, until cancer made it unfeasible for her to continue. She reviewed and wrote features for the Washington Post and also founded her own writing group of long duration, after graduating with her MFA from George Mason University. Later, she facilitated a reading group of women offenders in a program sponsored by the Fairfax County Virginia, library. Kaufman left behind a family, including two almost-grown sons, and a first book only a month away from publication. She was 50 years old.
The book is Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories, a collection of 14 stories that appeared originally in such venues as New York Stories, Literal Latte, Ascent and The New Yorker. Kaufman’s voice is irresistibly comic—which does not mean that the stories are all uproarious. Some are funny, some are sad; many are both. Kaufman has a talent for the minimally adorned word or phrase that evokes a fraught and complicated emotion or situation—in “Still Life,” for example, in which the teenage narrator’s mother is sunk in depression and refuses to leave the couch, “her bony shoulders jutting through the same dirty green sweatshirt she was wearing on the day she took up her post.”
The stories are economical; several are fine examples of the short-short story, a form that lends itself well to irony. There’s the gentle but insistent irony of “True Confessions of a Bread Baker,” in which the narrator recounts in four brief segments her efforts through the years to write about men who have played a role in her life—including Woody Allen, whom she wrote to as a teenager. Each man tells her, “You’re funny, kid, but don’t write what you know.” And in each case, the narrator gives up, realizing, “this means he doesn’t want me to write about him.” Finally, in her more settled thirties, the young woman is now living with a scientist who teaches her to bake bread, and she returns to her writing. Even though the discouragement of her past male mentors has left its mark, she’s turned it to her advantage:
This time, I write in the voice of first-person witness—urban stories of single women, quirky narratives of young girls who love houseplants. The scientist reads these and says to me: “You’re funny, but why don’t you write what you know?” I realize this means he wants me to write about him. But by this time it’s too late. I have learned to combine yeast, flour, water, and salt: the basic elements that ferment and bubble and bake into something that resembles none of its murky beginnings and yet tastes only like truth to the mouth.
Kaufman’s humor is evident from the first page of the title story, which opens the collection: the bright and tart-voiced sixth-grade narrator, Vita, is “pissed” because in the school production of the Trojan War epic, another girl, a shameless flirt, has been chosen to play Helen of Troy (fittingly, she’s named Helen) and Vita is consigned to the inside of the horse costume. “I can’t believe it,” she rails:
The horse! I wanted to be one of the Trojan women—Andromache, Cassandra, or even Hecuba . . . I told Mr. Dodd this, and then I showed him I could act. I got really sad and cried out about the thought of the body of my husband, Hector, being dragged around the walls of my city. I wailed and beat my fist against my chest. “A regular Sarah Heartburn,” was all he said.
Vita has obviously inherited her mordant voice and outlook from her mother, whose explanation for why they have stayed in their New York apartment after Vita’s father walked out on them is that, “The rent’s stabilized, even if the relationship wasn’t.” About Vita’s desire to play Helen she advises, “her father was a swan and her mother was too young to have children. You don’t want to be Helen.”
But Kaufman’s is not a comedy of mere funny lines; rather it’s one of often hopeless situations and the types of women and girls who get into them. In “Helen on 86th Street,” there’s the eccentricity of Vita’s abandoned single mother—who translates ancient Greek and Latin texts, is working on a never-ending graduate degree from Columbia, and keeps their dead dog’s ashes on the mantelpiece in a jar she likes to twirl. She’s too smart and cynical to be entirely happy, and so is Vita, though she doesn’t understand this yet. To the reader, Vita’s desire to play Helen is as misplaced as it is fierce. When her mother tells her that ancient Greeks made burnt offerings to the gods in supplication, she decides to try it herself as a last-ditch effort to get Helen’s part (she finally does). As she recites a litany of the only Greek words she knows—spanakopita, moussaka, gyro—she burns the three years’ worth of letters she’s written nightly to her absent father in the dwindling hope that he may return. Are we supposed to laugh at Vita’s parody of a ceremonial sacrifice? Weep that she’s finally giving up on her father? Or both at the same time? Kaufman is adept at this sort of undercutting of poignancy with humor.
When, in the final stages of her cancer last year, Kaufman approached Joyce Maynard about blurbing her forthcoming book, Maynard (who did not know her personally), agreed and began by reading “Helen,” which had first appeared in The New Yorker over a decade ago, in 1997. Maynard solemnly reflected in an essay for the New York Observer, “No doubt the moment when that story was accepted at such a place suggested the start of a dazzling career—one that had not materialized.”
There’s irony, but only the sad kind, in the fact that Kaufman’s late-blooming voice lapsed into silence just a month before the publication of Helen on 86th Street. The collection was the first title released by the Stillhouse Press, which was founded by Kaufman’s fellow George Mason alumna and writing group member, Dallas Hudgens. Launched in January 2014, Stillhouse Press is a collaboration between the creative writing program at George Mason University and an annual regional literary festival in Fairfax, Virgina, called Fall for the Book. Kaufman’s collection was a natural choice for an inaugural title, and production was pushed along in the hope that the book might be published while she was still living; but Kaufman died in August of last year, and the book didn’t come out until October.
“She saw the cover, she read the pages, she saw the introduction, but I don’t think she ever held the book in her hands,” said Kaufman’s friend and fellow Washington writer Mary Kay Zuravleff when I talked with her about Wendi’s life and writing. When she realized time was short and knew her book was going to be published, Kaufman asked Zuravleff to write the introduction. “Why didn’t she publish a book before that? She was too busy running everything else,” Zuravleff reflected. She described to me a woman committed to literature: “She wanted people to speak books as a second language. To that cause she donated huge amounts of her time.” One example of this commitment is Kaufman’s work facilitating the Fairfax County library’s Changing Lives Through Literature program. The program originated in the early ’90s at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and uses literary reading and small discussion groups as an alternative to sentencing for juvenile and adult offenders. Kaufmann was an early facilitator of Fairfax County’s program and worked with young female offenders. In one account of how the discussions affected participants she wrote, “The girls begin each class with wariness and distrust, but as time goes on, the walls crumble and the group melds into a coherent whole, with each member willing to respond in real and unguarded ways.”
“Wendi’s talent is important because her stories reveal the solidarity as well as the singularity of women,” Zuravleff writes in her introduction. In each story, Kaufman turns her ironic lens on the complicated conflicts that women, especially young women, inevitably confront as they travel through adolescence and into maturity. Kaufman’s women tend to know what they want and exhibit a quiet tenacity about it; but even when they don’t know, exactly, they are self-aware and autonomous and smart.
Often the conflicts revolve around men, or authority, especially parental authority—or both. In “Package Deal,” high-school senior Josie finds herself taking care of Harry, her single, older father, after a pair of heart attacks and a heart surgery. Her boyfriend, Danny, moves in, and together they play caregivers to Harry. But Josie knows things won’t continue like this—college is on the horizon, and though her grades are mediocre and will limit her to a local school, Danny has a chance at scholarships elsewhere. Her father tries to intervene to arrange a “package deal” for them out of state, but in this reversal of who’s parenting whom and who knows best, the young people are more realistic, and Josie is the most realistic of all. The story ends on a hopeful, if ambiguous note, but not before Josie has had to acknowledge to herself that sooner or later life is going to bring separation—and that she can accept it:
Our friends are leaving; I am worried about Harry; that he’s not going to be around much longer, and that Danny and I will never be together in the same way . . . I know he [Danny] wants not one single thing to change from the way it is now, but everything around us is changing; there is nothing we can do about it.
In one of the funniest stories, “Good Advice,” the narrator is neither young nor advantaged like Josie. The tough and gritty best-selling author of a book of “life lessons” for women, she’s a master of the kind of outrageously sardonic remark that makes her publicists want to tear their hair out—which is why she’s receiving “media training” in what not to say. But like Josie, she has a conviction that she can handle whatever she needs to. “This is it, my moment,” she thinks, “and if I sit back, let them primp and pose me . . . there just might be another zero tacked on at the end of the check at the end of the day.” Even if that doesn’t happen and she finds she can’t keep her mouth shut, she is certain that ultimately she holds the winning hand.
The book culminates in two memorable pieces about female lives that could not be more different. “Visitation Rights” is a playful story about a family of women psychics. Missy, another of Kaufman’s engaging first-person narrators, has a mother who converses with the dead at all hours, usually while intoxicated, and a grandmother who is just as in tune with spirits but more judicious in employing her psychic abilities. Grandmother and mother have a volatile relationship: “I guess it’s easy for their feelings to get hurt when they can read each other’s minds,” Missy observes. She is sure the gift of second sight passed her by, but by the story’s end, she’s had her own experience with the paranormal and is more willing to accept the family’s uncommon feminine legacy. Both the solidarity and the singularity of women that Zuravleff comments on are front and center in this story.
The final story, “Local Girl,” a serious and realistic counterpoint to “Visitation Rights,” is about a 16-year-old babysitter’s summer-long liaison with a married playwright. It is one of the longest stories in the collection and shares with several of the others, including the previously mentioned “Package Deal,” the theme of opportunities not so much missed as firmly rejected because the character wants to make her own choice. The narrator (unnamed) takes a job babysitting for 36-year-old Gary, the playwright, while he spends the summer writing at a vacation house in the Catskills and his wife pursues acting in LA. Man and girl bond over books—Gary owns a lot of them—and an affair begins that the reader has seen coming from the start. Then Gary’s wife comes back and discovers them together; the affair ends, and the family departs. But two years later, when the narrator is about to be married, Gary returns and asks her to run away to Chicago with him.
“Don’t throw it all away and ruin your life,” he says, warning her that she’s about to fall into a disastrous cliché of small-town, working-class life. In a dialogue in which he seems at first to have the upper hand—after all, he’s offering her escape and adventure—the narrator holds her own:
“It’s not going to work,” he said, sensing my doubts. “You’ll never go to school. You’ll get pregnant. And you’ll end up right back here in this town. It’s the oldest story in the book.” It sounded like he already had me wearing tube tops, living at the trailer park, and drawing a monthly government check. Like I would never escape the poor country town I came from.
“Oh really? I said, gathering up my purse, getting ready to leave. “More cliché than fucking the babysitter?”
She’s not immune to the appeal of Gary’s proposition. In a gesture of either persuasion or possession, he puts his hands on her shoulders “and I felt their weight pressing on me,” she says. But she wants to choose, even if it’s the wrong decision. There are worse fates, the reader imagines, than proclaiming one’s freedom to be wrong. Allowing oneself to be molded by an older man might be one of them.
After I finished reading Kaufman’s collection, I thought about another posthumously published first book of fiction, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. That book has had an enduring life for over 30 years, first as a cult favorite, then winning a Pulitzer, and then becoming a classic of contemporary Southern literature. A decade later, after a legal squabble among Toole’s heirs, his apprentice novel, The Neon Bible, written when he was just 16, was also published. If a writing career is measured in books published, neither Toole nor Kaufman can be said to have had much of one, but both can surely be said to have left a legacy of words and enjoyment. Toole’s slim body of writing earned him a legion of appreciative fans. Even were one not to consider Kaufman’s “huge” donations of time to her literary community, the impact of her own writing has already radiated well beyond Washington, DC. “Helen on 86th Street” is a lively gem that was anthologized in Scribner’s Best of the Fiction Workshops in 1998 and has been taught in high school English classes. In 2011 it was adapted into a musical by Nicole Kempskie and Robby Stamper. It appears that Kaufman’s work, like Toole’s, has been winning fans and carrying on.
Evelyn Somers’s previous features: The Short Fiction of Murray Farish: “Something Ought to Be Possible”, “Everything Rich and Strange”: Maureen Stanton’s Journey into Flea-Market Culture, Elaine Neil Orr: Haunted by Africa, No Apparent Boundaries: Julia Glass’s Intricate Realities