Reviewed by Emily Webber
The over seventy flash fiction stories in Sarah Mintz’s collection, handwringers (Radiant Press, 2021), are the opposite of your Instagram feed. They are stories that show how our minds and bodies are unruly. Greasy skin, unplucked eyebrows, hairy legs, and awkward social encounters are on full display. Mintz tells these stories from a voice entirely her own and experiments with form, at times ignoring the conventions of craft and using her own rules of grammar and punctuation. Captured in the collection are moments in the lives of these characters where they interact with family and friends, often in a clumsy way, both physically and emotionally. But when you think you’ve got a handle on the type of character handrwingers presents, Mintz throws in surreal and strange points of view.
“A Car Called Vera,” the first story in handwringers, a woman reflects on how her grandmother’s car changes as her grandmother ages. By the end, it is a meditation on why memories fail us and why the loss of a physical presence is so devastating. It is a wonderful starting point and indicator of what the reader will encounter in this collection, characters wrestling with the way our world works. These are characters full of oddities, superstitions, and they can’t hide their boredom and irritation. Mintz’s physical descriptions of her characters are superb: “He wore nearly transparent polo shirts, so thin, the material, trying hard to cover his hard round belly, like dressing a tire in toilet paper.”
This collection is crowded, meaning you’ll wade through a few stories that don’t quite connect, but you’ll encounter many gems. Some of the longer stories feel like a narrated list of character details rather than a fully fleshed-out story. But getting to the gems is worth it, and handwringers is mainly comprised of shorter flash fiction. Most of the stories are a few sentences to a few paragraphs, and these are the ones that stand out.
Mintz plays with form and punctuation in many of the stories in handrwingers. “L’Shana Tova, I Guess” and “INVITATIONS” read like prose poems. “Alice Through the Crowd” follows a woman running through the mall to get to the metro station in a stream of consciousness format. “Be Fruitful” is all dialogue. All of this adds to the frenzied nature of the situations depicted. Even the title of the collection, handwringers, perfectly describes the atmosphere of these stories. Mintz’s stories are populated with people giving in to anxiety and overexaggerated displays. “Always Being; Then and After” features a woman creating a commotion in a hotel lobby, she is wringing her hands, and her husband and child all perform their roles. It is an interaction we all have probably watched or participated in countless times. There’s also humor; in “PIG MEAT,” a woman’s attempts to seduce her rabbi fail when he finds a pork bun in her purse.
And just when you think these are all rooted in the reality of our bodies and our world, Mintz brings back a grandmother from the dead, animals in the woods, and in another, a bird and a whale converse with each other. A cabbage spreads fear throughout the garden: “The red cabbage had always known of the outside threat of the ungulate but as he matured, a frenzy took hold. He spread the word, the thought, the fear. Three cabbages staged a protest. They sent up a ruckus. The carrots went limp. The rutabagas rotted in their plots. Squash flowers shrivelled.”
While the surreal and strange stories are surprising and delightful, what Mintz knows best is the emotional lives of people. In “Let’s Go,” people are filling into a hockey game. A simple moment highlights that rush of feeling of belonging to a larger group of people with the same purpose. “And everyone filling the parking lot flows bright as the west sun lights up the left side of their creased faces while they walk north towards the crisp conditioned smell of artificial ice. You don’t mind your life then and your feel like telling somebody.” And yet, there’s still a longing for that harder to get individual, personal connection. A three-line exchange in “imagine wisdom as wrinkled and wrinkles as decay” between a grandchild and grandmother is still lingering in my mind. In just a few lines, the conversation captures the inability of different generations to understand, empathize, and communicate with each other.
After more than a year of staying home and limited social encounters, I feel unwieldy in the world now that I have to venture out again. Mintz’s stories brought me a weird comfort, reminding me that the awkwardness was always there. It is a matter of being alive, and some people just hide it better than others. Mintz throws the reader fully into the chaos of our world and how we interact with each other. In “Street Trash,” an injured pigeon flaps around on the sidewalk, and when the woman loses sight of the pigeon, she imagines that someone has either put it out of its misery or made it whole again. In these stories, I saw bits of myself and others and a spark of hope that we could better understand and accept our fragile bodies and egos.
Emily Webber was born and raised in South Florida where she lives with her husband and son. She has published fiction, essays, and reviews in the Ploughshares Blog, The Writer magazine, Five Points, Maudlin House, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. She’s the author of a chapbook of flash fiction, Macerated, from Paper Nautilus Press. Read more at www.emilyannwebber.com.