(This review was originally published at The Cult)
Gina Frangello is a dangerous writer. In Slut Lullabies (Emergency Press) she shares a collection of short stories that at first glance are light, humorous, and naughty. But upon deeper study she is the kind of storyteller that sidles up to you all white teeth and crimson lipstick, musky perfume and sparkling eyes, while she slips the blade of her knife between your ribs. This is a haunting compilation of work, gut wrenching, and yet funny, pulling you in with its laughter and sex appeal, and when you're hunched over in the fetal position trying not to wet your pants as tears run down your face, the realization of what really happened washes over you, and it breaks your heart, shatters it, and stomps the pieces into dust. But with a title like Slut Lullabies could you expect anything less?
One of the things that Gina Frangello does really well is grab you from the first sentence. Narrative hooks, they never go out of style. Here are three examples of how she pulls you in, from 'Slut Lullabies', 'Waves' and 'Saving Crystal', respectively:
'I found out my mother was a slut from my best friend, at a bar with my secret Greek boyfriend who was possibly a homosexual and his uptight brother who pretended to know nothing of our affair.'
'Van tells me one of his students has written a story about a girl with a tracheotomy, whose English teacher breaks into her bedroom at night and makes love to the hole in her neck.'
'The last time I saw my dad beating Crystal she was two months pregnant.'
BAM. In the first example, the impulse is to laugh. Who calls their own mother a slut? It's funny'dysfunctional, but funny, raw and honest as well. But over time, it takes on another meaning, the daughter realizing that she'd rather have a mother that got out there and had a good time than the dead-eyed one she has now, struggling to fight the sickness that drains her body of life. The second is a shocking visual, ridiculous in its imagery, funny if it wasn't so violent and perverse. And maybe funny anyway. The third is straight into the darkness, an abusive father, witnessed by his child, beating on a pregnant woman, no forgiveness allowed of such low behavior. She runs the gamut with these opening sentences, a wide range of emotions, but always honest, never turning the camera away, forcing us to bear witness to it all.
But Frangello is smart. She breaks up the serious moments and heavy endings with a lot of humor. Sometimes the jokes are at the expense of her protagonists, and sometimes we laugh with her characters, aware of their own shortcomings, willing to embrace those humorous weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. Take for example these two passages from the story 'What You See' where none of the characters have traditional names, but instead are referred to as an Intelligent Woman or Macho Man, for example:
'The Aggressive Woman may also be referred to as: the Smoking Woman, the Skinny Woman, the Foul-Mouthed Skank, the Special-Education Teacher, the Adopted Daughter, the World Traveler, and the Survivor of Childhood Hodgkin's Disease.'
'The Heavyset Man may also be referred to as: the Theater Major, Grisly Adams, Nature Boy, the Heavy Drinker, the Red-Faced Man, Sensitive Man, and Man-Suffering-from-Impotence-in-Times-of-Stress.'
Even in these funny moments, there is an underlying layer of failure, a sting to her wit.
Running us through the emotional wringer, Frangello opens her stories with intrigue, teaches us many things, makes us laugh, and then breaks our heart. As any good story should. From 'Slut Lullabies', speaking about her dying mother:
'With an intensity so rough it doubled me over, I missed the long-past squeaking of my mother's bed, the muffled, complicit adult laughter that excluded me, that rhythmic pounding on the wall our bedrooms shared'the lullaby of my youth."
And in 'Waves' in response to her boyfriend getting ready to shoot her up with heroin:
'I don't know how to explain that isn't what I want, so I stop talking; watch him finish, showing me how. I imagine how gently he will slide the needle into my arm someday, like a father. I can trust him not to give up or give in to his conscience'he is the type to keep trying to scrape his way inside, until I can be certain there will be nothing left of me.'
And finally, from 'Stalking God' speaking about her long gone suicidal father:
'The incense here still lingers from Mass this afternoon. But Jayne prefers the Nag Champa she burns in her own apartment, the kind Blaine introduced her to'a smell so different from his smell, one that belongs to her even though he has gone away. She will not stay here long. But once, her father sat in this church, perhaps in this very pew with his teenage bride, both young and shiny and full of stupid, beautiful hope. She will remain just a little while, try to believe that she can feel him.'
In this collection of short stories, Gina Frangello holds nothing back. When you spend time with her and listen to these misadventures from her fictional youth, or broken adulthood, it is as if you are sitting with a close friend, at times horrified, backing away from her, and at other times, leaning in closer, to hold her hand, and tell her everything will be okay. Even when you know, deep inside, that what you say is not the truth. The intimacy that is created in these fearless stories is unique, an unexpected warmth, being allowed to know these secret lives, these failures buried under layers of shame, these dreams that lie fallow, no harvest in sight. But there is hope in here too, wisdom learned from falling, making ourselves stronger, and laughter at having gone through similar things, an understanding of how these things happen, how we all destroy our love at times, jump into bed with sultry strangers, and vow not to turn into our parents. Slut Lullabies is a powerful collection of fiction, a microcosm in the palm of your hands, the Alpha and the Omega.