Twenty Grand has been on my wishlist for years, but I finally received it as a gift this Christmas. I delved in and immediately realized that I had read the first two stories, in the New Yorker and Harper’s, respectively. I was happy to see them again. The two stories, “Hungry Self” and “Summer, with Twins,” have a lot in common. Both are from the point of view of a college-age girl, working a summer job at a resort restaurant and living as the odd-one-out with well-off twins for housemates. The stories are honest, as funny as they are disturbing. The protagonist is dysfunctional through both no fault and plenty of fault of her own. These two stories are really, really good.
The fourth story in the collection, “The Alpine Slide,” also concerns a New England resort. A fifteen year old good-girl lands a summer job at a local resort, newly helmed by a Canadian named Jacques, featuring a gigantic, precarious slide. Visitors ride down the slide on sleds, flying along as if in snow, although it is summer. Disasters of the flesh and psyche follow. This story satisfies on a lot of levels. It’s a summertime, coming-of-age story, it’s got blood, sex, crime. It’s nostalgic. It’s terrific.
As I read the first two stories, I was confounded by the front and back cover blurbs on my copy of the book. They are by Gary Shteyngart and George Saunders. There is nothing particularly exceptional about the content of these comments, but what perplexed me was the decision (the publisher’s? Rebecca’s?) to align the book with these more experimental, speculative writers. I couldn’t see that their work had anything in common with the book I was reading.
Until I got to the third story, “To the Interstate.” Reading onward from that point in the book, I realized that this collection is comprised of two different kinds of stories, the more traditional and the more experimental. In stories like “To the Interstate,” “Monsters” and “The Wolf at the Door,” specificity is traded for a more fabulist tone. These are incredibly dark fairy tales populated by monsters, both the furry and human varieties. It is no surprise that several of them were published in McSweeney’s or that Shteyngart and Saunders would recommend them. I found, though, that they were nowhere near as successful as stories like “Hungry Self,” “Summer, with Twins” and “The Alpine Slide.” I kept waiting for them to kick-in, for some sort of connection to develop between the characters and me, for me to start caring what happened to them. But, because they were written at what seemed to be a sort of remove, in a zoomed-out, detached style, I found myself wanting to flip through to the next “real” story.
I still recommend Twenty Grand–I enjoyed five out of thirteen stories and absolutely loved three of them. Even if you are like me and don’t care for the fabulist tales (I’d venture that many of you won’t be like me in this regard, by the way), those three stories alone are worth the price of the book.