A young woman who works at an apparel company is invited to her boss’s (the wonderfully named Mr. Belhatchet) apartment to look at designs. He makes her drinks, they go to dinner, and afterward, while they’re working, he surreptitiously doses their drinks with acid. They trip extremely hard together, during which time he tells her about his dead mother, with whom he’s obsessed. She leaves the apartment and passes out on the street, and she’s discovered by a policeman who brings her into custody. At the station, she has a screaming fit about her fear of sex and Mr. Belhatchet’s mother, and she’s thrown into a cell. The cop shakes his head at the depravity of people like her and Mr. Belhatchet, summing up his feelings in a single, dismissive word, the title of the story: kinkies.
The stories in this collection mostly feel timeless, but occasionally there’s a piece that feels especially of the ’60s/early-’70s. Covert acid dosing is certainly a bygone practice. The story’s clothes are redolent of Carnaby Street, all rainbow colors and wide lapels. The narrative ends on a musty note of intergenerational divide without adding much to the conversation. The policeman has misjudged Eleanor, as Eleanor misjudged Mr. Belhatchet—people misjudge each other, it seems.
The most noteworthy thing about this minor piece is actually Mr. Belhatchet’s clipped mode of speech. Here he is in the cab after the restaurant, convincing Eleanor to come back to his flat:
‘Age you now, Ellie?’ he asked in the taxi, and she told him she’d become twenty-seven the previous Tuesday, while he’d been in Rome.
‘Lovely,’ he said. ‘Fabulous.’
He was still smiling and she thought he must be drunk except that his speech was in no way slurred.
‘It’s really so late,’ she said as the taxi paused in traffic. ‘Perhaps we should leave the designs for tonight, Mr. Belhatchet?’
‘Take morning off, Ellie.’
This mode of speech is both comic and menacing, and in tandem with the etymology of Mr. Belhatchet’s name, foreshadows a violence that arrives, unexpectedly, in the lesser form of a bad trip. When the acid takes hold, Mr. Belhatchet suddenly begins speaking in full, almost flowery sentences, and this too is disconcerting. There is something deeply unnerving about a character with established speech rhythms suddenly speaking like another person, as disquieting as an outright physical transformation.
It seems possible that in 2022 we have forgone many of the narrative possibilities offered by dialogue. We know better than to write dialect, and that’s mostly for the good. But most realist literary novels and stories that I read—and write, admittedly—tend to feature a kind of flattened, stylized speech that is conspicuous for its inconspicuousness. Characters in modern fiction tend to largely speak the same, interchangeably, and while this is good for avoiding amateurism and tastelessness, it limits what dialogue can really do beside advance plot and reveal character emotion.
Raymond Carver’s stories, for example, feature more dialogue-weirdness than a reader is likely to encounter in the average New Yorker story. Think of the “bubs” in “Cathedral,” for example. An exception here, and an author I teach sometimes in my classes is Bryan Washington, who makes greater use of dialogue than most writers working today. In “Visitor,” the narrator takes in a man who claims to be the narrator’s father. They have lunch in a deli and this exchange occurs:
That’s what I told you, the man said.
I opened my mouth, and then I closed it. My visitor tugged on his ear.
I know what’s in your head, he said. Plenty of Chinese all over the island. Everywhere. Even if you didn’t know that.
I didn’t say there weren’t, I said, although it’s exactly what I’d been thinking.
Eh, the man said.
And then: Your father and I were just kids, he said. Lasted five years, on and off
Five years, I said.
One, two, five.
And then you stopped?
Stopped? In Jamaica? Of course we stopped.
Did you stay in contact?
Ai-yah, the man said. How would we do that? We stopped. Do they have orange juice?
Maybe, I said. Fuck.
Your father swore, too, the man said.
Fuck, I said again.
This verges on dialect in places, but in being willing to explore individualized speech patterns Washington manages to seamlessly create this Chinese-Jamaican voice, a highly personal patois. Washington’s stories are dialogue-centric, perhaps as much as eighty percent dialogue, so he depends on differentiation and idiosyncrasy in speech more than most writers. There’s a lesson to be taken from this, and from “Kinkies”—as writers, we hew to professionalized tastefulness at our creative peril.
Next up: “Going Home.”