I first stumbled across Katherine Karlin’s work in the Winter 2015 edition of The Cincinnati Review. The story, “We Are the Polites,” is told from the point of view of the youngest daughter of five children born to a large, famous Greek family. Her name is Honey, all of her other siblings have normal, “non-stripper” names, and they lead clean-shaven, non-stripper lives. Not that Honey is a stripper (she’s not); Honey is an uninteresting accountant whose life pales in comparison to those of her theatrical siblings.
You’re probably thinking sad story, I’ve read it all before. But you haven’t. Not the way Karlin tells it. Through Honey’s eyes, everything is alight with quotidian beauty—the small things are her bread and butter, and Karlin lives in those descriptions. Here is a passage, one of many from “We Are the Polites,” that converted me to Karlin:
In the winter, the sun slides from my apartment by two in the afternoon. I live in the second-story of a cottage in Somerville, a vantage point from which I can watch the neighborhood change. That
check-cashing place is now a dress shop, and the Chinese takeout turned into a tapas bar. The beige paint on the living room wall is frizzled like pencil shavings. The hot water knocks…These familiar defects are comfortable to me, like the battered wok hanging on the wall or the smell of diesel from the street. Stick your head out the kitchen window and look sharp to the left: You’ll see a sliver of the Charles. I like that.”
You may say, “but you’re supposed to be writing about Send Me Work.” I’m getting there. The point I have been trying to make is this: how often is it that a short piece you read in just another literary review audibly takes your breath away? Karlin gets comfortable with the awkward in-betweens that often accompany lofty career expectations. Honey is just one example of one of Karlin’s characters in a period of transition.
Send Me Work, Karlin’s 2011 debut short story collection, tells of women in the workplace, often aspiring to become masters of their respective crafts, and many times ultimately failing but realizing something about perseverance along the way. The stories are the painful yet intricately rendered tipping points that Karlin’s women must face. Karlin’s stories are heavily inspired by her own experiences, which makes sense when considering the strongest areas of her stories: rich descriptions and realistic dialogue.
Three stories are central to the development of themes in the collection: The Severac Sound, Muscle Memory, and Send Me Work. This trifecta appears early in the collection, one after another, more reminiscent of sneak attacks than gut punches.
In The Severac Sound, Rachel lingers as a lady in waiting of sorts—she’s the perpetual second chair oboist in a respected symphony orchestra. Second to Peter, and second in the eyes of their cancer-riddled instructor. Nothing trumpets the persistent horrors of the stereotypical, overshadowing male figure like the opening line, “Water sprang from the fat penis of a bronze cherub and splashed in a turquoise pool glittering with pennies.” In the opening scene, Rachel is admiring the fountain in the lobby of her hotel, but the moment is ruined when she realizes the statue reminds her of Peter. She imagines her aloof colleague as the cherub, “urinating on her hand.” Karlin uses such subtle moments of humor and elegant detail to avoid reducing her characters to sorry puppets used and pounded into dust by the misogynist societies in which they work. In the end, instead of realizing dreams or shriveling into crumpled wads of self-pity, Karlin’s women find something to hold onto, the equivalent of a secret that keeps their spirits alive and their nihilism at bay. I can’t really give much more away without spoiling the ending, but just know that Karlin consistently establishes and undercuts traditional feminist tropes to give her character Harriet a newfound sense of autonomy.
The impetus for The Severac Sound began with Karlin’s experience. One of Karlin’s good friends was a professional oboist, and she actually travelled with his orchestra on tour across Europe and the US, carrying luggage and doing laundry for them. She knows the tediousness of readying a reed before rehearsal because she’s seen the process dozens of times. The story is so strong due to Karlin’s immersion in the subject matter.
Muscle Memory, perhaps Karlin’s most widely read short story to date, is the story of Destiny, a young New Orleans woman whose father died in Hurricane Katrina. Her father was a welder, and Destiny, in order to learn the craft and support her mother, tries to earn the respect of a welder at the shipyard where she works. Karlin, drawing upon firsthand experience as a woman working the shipyards, once learned how to weld from the men she worked with. Augustine, a washed up, bitter character who once recorded a hit record as a one hit wonder, takes it upon himself to school Destiny in not only welding but in his musical heritage, a journey of discovery that parallels the development of Destiny’s education as a welder.
Send Me Work, the title story, is perhaps the most heartbreaking of them all. It’s the story of Harriet, a failed standup comedienne who was recently fired from her temp job as an accountant and kicked out of her apartment. Izzy, her longtime best friend, works as a circus clown, and he meets up with her in New York every year. The moments leading up to this year’s meeting are freighted with Harriet’s memories of past adventures. And when the two meet again, Harriet holds onto the new memories for dear life:
She would need to memorize all of this: the singing, the taste of tangerine and the seed he spit on the pavement, the fog his breath made. Someday she would need it. Holding his arm she glanced up to see, on top of the buildings, the black silhouettes of water towers, staved and coopered and quaint. She shivered.
The two have an exchange about a radio segment in which listeners call in with popular song lyrics they’ve misheard. The title takes its name from a misinterpreted Bruce Springsteen lyric from “Drive All Night,” a song from his 1980 album The River. (This also made the Springsteen fan in me scream with joy like nothing else I’ve ever read before, but that is beside the point.) Harriet explains to Izzy:
It starts out, ‘I wish God would send me word, send me something I’m afraid to lose.’ And this dude [who called in] always heard it, ‘I wish God would send me work, send me something I’m afraid to do.’”
The misheard lyric, in addition to its function within the story, could be construed as a commentary on Karlin’s writing philosophy. She writes from experience, meaning that she picks out scenarios or events from her life and transforms them into short stories. Karlin, and perhaps all creative writers, wait for those little moments worthy of remembering, each one a challenge laden with potential and begging to captured.
Creative Writing MA 2017