Reviews, Vol. 7.1, March 2013
Big Rodent Books, July 1, 2012
Perfect bound, 37 pp., $7.50
Review by James R. Gapinski
Rebekah Matthews’ Hymnal for Dirty Girls has a voyeuristic quality. In the collection’s six short stories, the idiosyncratic protagonists tend to watch, yearn, and wonder in the background, but Matthews is always quick to hint at personal tumult. Her characters sometimes appear rather static, but on closer inspection readers realize how complex they are. Matthews invites her readers to read with the same almost-creepy gaze as her wallflower narrators by planting intriguing clues to each narrator’s central problem. She uses these breadcrumbs as invitations to darkly funny inferences. In short, Matthews is the kind of author who wants you to assume the worst about her protagonists—even if the humor-laced plot suggests a more sanguine disposition.
Every narrator has some telltale sign of distress, and the reader gradually uncovers the narrator’s plight in tandem with a more obvious external story. Take, for example, the first story in Hymnal for Dirty Girls, entitled “Bedroom.” In this story, the narrator is obsessed with dirty condoms that appear outside her apartment. In a fit of humor, the narrator explains that these used condoms are more disturbing than the pantsless man and blood-soaked tourniquets also appearing on the sidewalk. For some reason, she zeros in on the condoms—she believes they are the most troublesome thing about her rundown neighborhood. She and her friend hold a stakeout, and it seems like this story will be a laughter-filled look at the sexcapades of the condom litterer. Instead, the narrator’s obsession takes on deeper meaning with each bit of dialogue and backstory, and the reader learns that the condom is symbolic of the narrator’s own relationship woes.
Everything in Matthews’ chapbook has two distinct layers; on the surface are funny glimpses into the fractured lives of ancillary characters—red herrings who sometimes steal the show—and beneath these ancillary figures is a reflection on the protagonist’s own issues, culled from careful hints planted within the syntax and diction. On the first read, there is plenty to entertain a reader, and each story ends with something that feels revelatory without being too in-your-face. On subsequent reads, you’ll find the story beneath the story.
Throughout Hymnal for Dirty Girls, the sentence-level construction is well-refined, and these stories pack a lot into each line, drawing loose comparisons with Gary Lutz’ work. Matthews’ stories take place in gritty, realistic environments, characterized more by odd trinkets and habits than fully-rendered rooms or landscapes. She writes with such uncanny specificity that the stories feel more dramatic and dynamic than their loglines suggest.
In the last story, “Heaven for Everyone,” these hyper-real conventions break down a little, but with good effect. She ends the story—and her collection—with a more overt, concrete resolution that gives readers a feeling of satisfaction. The story begins with “I die before I turn thirty…” and it proceeds to ruminate over the idea of death and the afterlife. The higher-stakes drama of “Heaven for Everyone” juxtaposed against the preceding stories immediately evokes shades of Harvey Pekar for me, as if I had just sat down and read some American Splendor back-to-back with Our Cancer Year. Matthews’ work has the same snarky attitude as Splendor, but it can get serious when a haughty theme emerges.
Rebekah Matthews has written a fine collection here. There are a few places where her pitch-perfect syntax flubs, and the chunky flow of “Reasonably In-Shape Women” could use some refining, but overall this debut marks the beginning of a promising catalogue for this emerging author. Matthews has a novelette entitled Hero Worship slated for 2014; if she can sustain her syntactical prowess and penchant for quick-laced subplot throughout a thicker manuscript, then expect Hero Worship to deliver another good read.