I’ve been waiting for this collection to come out since I read Danielle Evans’s story “Virgins” in The Best American Short Stories 2008. I can’t remember the last time I was so excited about a story. Obviously I’ve loved other ones before and since, but this story remains special. I wrote about it on this blog in January 2009; I encourage you to check out that entry, but more so, of course, to read it in Ms. Evans’s collection now that it’s finally been released.

Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self lived up to my expectations. The eight short stories contained within it are very contemporary in terms of subject matter and language, very honest, again, in terms of subject matter and language and incredibly moving. Most of the protagonists are young African-American women, although there are a few male narrators.

In the story “Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s Nowhere To Go,” one of these male narrators, Georgie, an army vet recently returned from Iraq, begins babysitting the young daughter of the woman he was sleeping with before deploying. She is now with someone else, a hapless guy who regards Georgie with a humiliating dose of pity. Georgie tells a very stupid lie involving the child, a lie that the reader can see will have disastrous results, but the way Ms. Evans writes it, the whole scenario is inevitable. I so clearly understood why he was making increasingly awful choices, which made the whole thing all the more tragic.

The collections kicks off with “Virgins”–still the highlight–peaks again in the middle with “Someone Ought to Tell Her…” and then ends with, in my opinion, the second best story, “Robert E. Lee is Dead.” In this story, Crystal is a super-smart high school student–the only black girl on the honors track in her highly segregated school. She falls into a friendship with badass Geena who protects her and integrates her into a crowd of black football players and cheerleaders, who accept her because Geena does.  Their friendship goes through ups and downs; at the end of the story, it is proven at the same time redemptive for one girl and damning for the other.

The second to last story, “Wherever You’re Going, There You Are,” wasn’t overall completely successful, I thought–it seemed to be trying to mash together two different stories. Often, that works, even in this book–the stories support and elevate each other. In this case, though, the lesser story never developed enough to mean much in its own right. But, the central relationship in the story, between a twenty-five year old woman and her fourteen year old cousin, Chrissie, was deep, complicated and cause for Ms. Evans to write this insanely brilliant, hilarious paragraph, which I will reprint here in closing. From page 180:

Maybe I’ve kind of freaked her out, because somewhere north of Columbia we pass a Friendly’s, and she gets all excited about it. Even though we’re nowhere near Richmond, I agree to stop when she asks. She’s dropped the diet stuff, at least, but if you’ve ever seen anything more disturbing than a kid eating a Reese’s Pieces Happy Face Sundae after you’ve just explained to her how to give a proper blow job, I don’t want to hear about it.

There you have it! If you have any readers on your Christmas gift list, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self would look excellent under the tree.