by Gregory Spatz
You know a book is good if you only stop reading so that you can tell the author, at 1 AM via Facebook, how much you are enjoying it. The evening I began reading it, I'd plans to watch Doctor Who, which, if you know me, is serious business. I thought I would read a little, then turn on the TV. No, I kept reading. Let it be known: Gregory Spatz's new story collection, Half as Happy, is a wonderfully gratifying little book.
This is the passage, from the story “Happy For You,” that had me thinking, Jesus, this guy is good at opening paragraphs, and that's when I jumped online to tell him so:
For the moment, she is asleep — an ethereal gray sleep, something like the color of brain matter or of wet cement at dawn, or of the light seeping across her ceiling. A window fan at the foot of her bed whisks air into the room — wet, early spring air — furls and unfurls it around her, keeping her aloft in her dreams.
[…]The phone rings, jerking her from this gray ethereality, aches in her joints and muscles all previously dissolved out of reason magically reasserting themselves.
Spatz takes what is normally a somewhat clichéd story opening — a character awakes — and creates something so perfect and true that it could never be any other way. I know what it is like to be (for once!) deep into an all-encompassing sleep, only to come back to the world with the unceasing reminders that I will likely never be pain-free.
However, the woman in “Happy for You” is much older than I am. She's a mother, divorced, and constantly worried about her gay son. “Half their relationship since he'd finished high school — no, more than that, seventy, eighty percent — has taken place over the telephone,” she thinks as they discuss Easter plans. It's a great story.
Many of the stories have a lovely tenderness amidst loneliness, and many also concern music. Spatz plays in two different bands himself, so this influence comes as no surprise. Where they overlap is something that interests me greatly, so when music is written about well, it makes me want to get to work.
Another opening passage, this time from “No Kind of Music”:
He sat in one of the lower rows of the balcony section, high enough that the musicians in their black and white appeared to him diminished and foreshortened, but not so distant their sound was lost or tone compromised. He like to imagine that being this elevated raised his own position within the music, Godlike, and that the distance between himself and the players might erase mistakes and mismatched pitches, causing the notes to arrive to him sweetened and more perfectly blended, more purely themselves; and he watched the players for evidence of a divine or magical connection to some essential truth within the music moving so uniformly through them, innervating them. He knew this was a fiction — any player up close was a lot of suffering joints and contradictory impulses, bad breath, weak eyesight, creaky digestion […] ; if there was evidence of magical or divine connections to be beheld in them it showed in their fingertips, bitten nails and torn cuticles, chapped mouths — all the places where they'd worn through themselves trying and trying and loving the music so habitually, so imperfectly. They were only human, after all — mortal, mutable. Nothing in the world was ever otherwise.
Having played viola and then cello in school orchestras, as well as playing with Great Falls' youth symphony in high school, I know that difference between the individual and the whole when it comes to large groups of musicians. I've spent a lot of time listening to our professional symphony — one I've found to be superior to some other cities', despite our out-of-the-way location — and the theater in which they play is a beautiful 1930s structure with a full balcony. One does feel different while listening from above.
Questions of intimacy, of friendship, and of just how far a person can push a situation — all are themes Spatz explores with deft clarity. I liked or completely loved every story in Half as Happy, and it made me want to read more of his writing.
Middle of the night declarations, the desire for more, and the knowing uplift one feels during music? Yes, of course I recommend Half as Happy. It is a book just dying to wedge itself into a small corner of your heart.
Full Disclosure: Engine Books sent me an advanced reading copy for review. Because of this, my pull quotes may differ slightly from the finished version. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.
#30 (Yes, since reviews #23-29 appeared on sites other than this one.)
This review is part of Cannonball Read V, in which participants attempt to read and review 52, 26, or 13 books in a year. A charitable donation is made for those who complete 52 reviews by December 31, 2013.