Daisy’s Valentine by Mary Gaitskill, 1988
The magic trick:
Get ready for your happy, little view of life as romantic comedy to take a solid punch to the gut. Perhaps you don’t hold that view. Probably you don’t hold that view. You read short stories, after all. But you know what, I don’t really care what your view of modern romance is – it’s about to be challenged by Mary Gaitskill.
She twists and turns clichés – using some, dispensing with others – then adds more than a dash of hard realism until the romance in this story is writhing on the ground.
It begins with the timid Joey wondering if this woman might ruin his life. You’re roped into the trope right away. Gosh, he made a sweet valentine. I wonder if he’ll get up the nerve to ask her out.
But you have to step back and look at the setup. These two are adults working a low-pay (presumably), going-nowhere (definitely) job at a book store. The book store part is quirky and romantic, but the reality is there are characteristics about both – dare I say flaws – that have led them here.
Gaitskill does a marvelous job of unfolding those characteristics as the story progresses. Joey is a drug addict, for instance. He is selfish. He has a massive ego, loves playing the victim, fantasizes about playing the hero, and in reality mostly does nothing.
Daisy is more nebulous as a character. What we can see for sure is her passivity. Life kind of just happens to her. It’s difficult to know if she’s happy or if she even wants to be happy.
This is complicated. This is realistic.
It all blows up of course, but not in a tying-of-the-plot-threads kind of way. It blows up quietly, with Daisy’s still-nebulous but nonetheless heartbreaking sobbing at the end.
A brilliantly complex story of unhappiness in the hipster-intelligent poverty class of New York City. And that’s quite a trick on Gaitskill’s part.
He thought of rescuing Daisy. She would be walking across the street, with that airy, unaware look on her face. A car would roar around a garbage-choked corner, she would freeze in its path, her pale face helpless as a crouching rabbit. From out of nowhere he would leap, sweeping her aside with one arm, knocking them both to the sidewalk, to safety, her head cushioned on his arm. Or she would be accosted by a hostile teenager who would grab her coat and push her against a wall. Suddenly he would attack. The punk’s legs would fly crazily as Joey slammed him against a crumbling brick wall. “If you hurt her, I’ll . . .”
He sighed happily and got another pill and a handful of jelly beans.
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