I INITIALLY HAD A HARD TIME reading Janice Shapiro's debut short story collection, Bummer, because I wrote very similar stories in college. "Fine, you fuckhead," one of Shapiro's tough girls screams to her boyfriend as she dumps him out of a car. Umm, almost verbatim. It was making me wince about the shortcomings of my own stories, until finally I had to just shake it off—it was my problem, not hers. It was then that Bummer revealed itself to be extremely readable, cleanly written, and a foundation for better work to come.
Bummer is about slightly bad girls who are having shitty days. There are a few other throughlines, like a Disney fixation, getting paid for sex, hitchhiking, being a 21-year-old punk rocker in LA in 1978, and constant feelings of impending doom. Whether it's a hypochondriac housewife who breaks into her neighbors' house to admire their organizational prowess or a fortysomething casting agent who seduces young male clients as a perk of her job, Shapiro's characters share a strong voice and similar-seeming backgrounds, but all this matchy-matchy makes the collection a bit flat.
Bummer's low moments come with Shapiro's twentysomething narrators, who lend the stories a strange, false feeling of trying to relive a wild adolescence. The details seem off, the characters preternaturally self-conscious, the era details a little wobbly. The only true stinker of a story is "Small," an embarrassing take on a 19-year-old, drug-dropping, massage parlor-working "Snow White," who takes up with seven dwarves in a '70s-tastic Santa Cruz bungalow. Cringe.
Shapiro's best work comes when she sloughs off the youth chasing, like in "Day and Night" and "The Old Bean," two of her more grown-up stories, in which the narrators are a bit older and working on getting wiser. The aforementioned casting agent wrestles with the loss of her mentor and true love, and also her damaged joie de vivre in "Day and Night." The last story, "The Old Bean," is about a middle-aged version of the "girl who screamed fuckhead," following a mother who works with a bunch of stuck-up college kids at a coffee shop, worrying that her fucked-up-in-love daughter is going to turn out like her. Bummer is solid, notwithstanding a few mistakes, but hell, who hasn't made a few of those... especially in short story form?