Drinking Coffee Elsewhere

by ZZ Packer (Riverhead), reading at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside, Monday February 9, 7:30 pm

I t's rare that one reads newer short fiction that favors character development and fierce storytelling over McSweeny's-ish gimmickry. ZZ Packer's debut collection, the much-celebrated Drinking Coffee Elsewhere is such a book.

Packer writes about characters who start out one way and end up another. Her characters include cross-eyed nurses, pimps, runaways with clarinets, women shying away from their first lesbian experiences, and shiftless fathers. Churches, schools, and the streets exist as playing fields with codes and regulations that hamper individuals, but also give them a much-needed social architecture.

In Brownies, a troop of nine-year-old Georgia girl scouts plan sweet revenge on a troop of white girls whom they falsely accuse of racism. The quiet narrator, nicknamed Snot, is bullied into complying with them, but the Brownie scouts have misjudged their enemies in ways that nobody could have foreseen, especially the reader. Humiliated, Snot offers the blunt assessment "When you've been made to feel bad for so long, you jump at the chance to do it to others."

The Ant of the Self is narrated by an honor student whose debate tournament is put on hold when he has to bail his Dad out of jail. Dad bullies Spurgeon into driving him 700 miles to the Million Man March, where he wants to unload some cockatiels on the men in attendance for some quick cash. In the collection's title story, a freshman at Yale tells her class that she wishes she were a handgun, which ignites years of school-mandated therapy.

In every story in the book, Packer's characters toe the line between innocence and experience, compassion and cruelty, faith and despair. They all yearn to express their freedom and individuality, but wind up finding themselves out of their element and lost. The stories in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere repeatedly left me staring silently at the blank spot at the end of the page, mentally reconstructing the developments that conspired to make me feel so puzzled and serene, and wondering how I could have been laughing out loud just two pages earlier. CHAS BOWIE