The Best Book You’ve Never Read: ‘Pieces for the Left Hand’

“Our town is famous for its deep, beautiful mountain gorges spanned by one-lane bridges, and it is from these bridges that local would-be suicides typically jump.” So begins “Copycats,” the sixth piece in J. Robert Lennon’s collection Pieces for the Left Hand: 100 Anecdotes, published by Graywolf Press in 2005. The swerve that occurs in this first sentence—we are lulled by tourism-brochure language only to be slapped by the word “suicides”—is a microcosm for the story, in which a college student’s painfully brief suicide note (“can’t/go on”) is revealed to have been torn from a larger, far less devastating note: “Midterms over, dude! I totally can’t/wait for this party. You can go on/without me if I’m late.—B.” The student’s “suicide” is now understood to have been an accidental death, a drunken fall to the bottom of a gorge, rather than an intentional act—but not before there have been “a rash of copycat suicides.” We move from the shock of the suicide, to the shock of the non-suicide, to the shock of the copycat suicides, all in the course of a page and a half. There’s plenty of horror in these shocks—and also some very black humor.
Pieces for the Left Hand is all about the swerve. In these hundred brief pieces (are they micro essays? Flash fictions? Prose poems? Who cares?), the assumptions set up at the beginning are overturned by the end. Every time I return to this book, I’m struck by Lennon’s ability to achieve this movement, and in so few words.
The swerve is used to different effects throughout the book. In “Twilight,” a coffee shop clerk is puzzled when some French tourists inquire: Where is twilight? The clerk politely explains that the end of the pier is the ideal place to view the sunset, only to realize that the tourists were seeking the toilet, not the twilight. Still, walking home from work, the clerk witnesses the tourists standing at the end of the pier.
The swerve here is not the whiplash of “Copycats,” but rather the pleasure of noticing, perhaps for the first time, that “toilet” and “twilight” are word-sisters; the universal humor of a linguistic misunderstanding; and the final beat, in which the awkwardness of the mistake has led to a moment of beauty unachievable but for the mistake. In a role it plays throughout the book, humor undercuts potential sentimentality.
Reading this book reminds me of running into a beloved and witty friend on the street, hearing their latest piece of bizarre gossip. Retelling these stories—which are not much longer in the summary than in the original—I feel the same charge I experience when some strange little thing happens to me, a coincidence or mix-up, that I’m eager to share with someone.
Yet it doesn’t do these pieces justice to dwell on their wry charm, for that trait is entwined with profound darkness, the ever-presence of death, a disconcerting eeriness that pulls back the veil on the illusions of daily life. In “Tea,” the narrator calculates the quantity of tea that his mother drank “in the twelve years between my father’s death and her own.” He concludes: 21,000 cups of tea, 1,300 gallons of tea, “a measure of loneliness.”


After I recommended Pieces for the Left Hand to a student of mine who often chafes at the contrivance of fictional narratives, he came to my office lit from within by the reading experience. Each of the stories, he said, has a perfect “it-ness” to it: it is what it is, no more and no less. Just the most efficient possible presentation of narrative.
I agree with my student; there is a straightforwardness to the delivery that plays potently against the many minor epiphanies in the book. At the same time, there’s a decided surreality to these stories: the narrator sees “giant yellow machines, bought by the city for the purpose of clearing wet leaves from the gutters” moving down the street with no drivers in them. In “Get Over It,” a town is in mourning for a fire that killed eleven children … forty years prior. These are the surrealities of life itself: surrealities created by dreams, by memory, by emotion.
Lennon elevates the mundane moments in life—or unveils their shadow side. These pieces deal in the minute instants when you mis-see, mis-hear, mis-interpret something. They point to the inherent absurdity of being a human moving through the world. I love the book for both its irony and its generosity.

I first read Pieces for the Left Hand over a decade ago, when I was making my own forays into narrative brevity. Weary after writing and then throwing out three full-length novels, I was craving—as a writer and as a reader—narratives that could be contained in one hand. Narratives that were more like doorways than like castles. Other books and writers helped me at that time: Jamaica Kincaid’s At the Bottom of the River, Bernard Cooper’s Maps to Anywhere, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Mary Ruefle’s The Most of It, Jorge Luis Borges, Lydia Davis.
Pieces for the Left Hand, along with these others, served as a critical permission book. It raised questions for me: What constitutes a narrative arc? How concise can a story be? Does genre matter? How does it help—if at all—to label things?
These books emboldened me: A book can contain whatever it is that you need to say. It can take whatever form you want it to take. Evade definition, and you free yourself.
As I learned from Lennon’s “The Mary,” an arc can consist of a person walking past a statue of the Virgin Mary every day—only to realize that the holy statue is actually an umbrella that was closed for the winter.
With this in mind, I began what would later become my first published book, And Yet They Were Happy, comprised entirely of stories that are each precisely 340 words. Within that arbitrary numerical constraint, I allowed myself to experiment with many different sorts of arcs.

Pieces from Lennon’s book arise randomly in my mind, almost like memories from my own life. I’m thinking now of the one in which the narrator spies garbage trucks at night, sprinkling cinnamon on the streets rather than collecting trash. When I was having trouble locating this particular story amid the hundred anecdotes, I wrote to J. Robert Lennon, asking if he could remind me of its title.
He replied: “Ha! No, I don’t think that’s me, actually, though it easily could be.”
Our exchange—and my surreal misremembering—made me feel like a character in Pieces for the Left Hand.
I could have sworn that story existed in the book. But maybe better yet that the book created enough space for the story to exist in me.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.

The Best Book You’ve Never Read: ‘The Easter Parade’

When Richard Yates’s The Easter Parade came out in 1976, it was a Book of the Month Club selection, alongside Judith Guest’s Ordinary People. Yates—who’d achieved career-making acclaim with his first novel, Revolutionary Road, but less success with subsequent ones—was excited about his expanded readership. But he also called up his editor Sam Lawrence to express his worry that Delacorte planned to market the novel, which follows two sisters from the 1930s to the 1970s, as a “woman’s book.”
Yates was not the first or last male novelist (see also: Franzen) to worry that his work would be diminished by its association with women. Even today, women’s fiction remains a category in publishing—my own books are sometimes labeled that way—and I often wonder what it means. Is it a book that features women? Is it anything I write, because I’m a woman?

I was working on my new “woman’s book,” Dual Citizens, about two sisters and their complicated, life-long bond, when a friend suggested I read The Easter Parade. Like most people, the only Yates I’d read was Revolutionary Road. In the decades since his death in 1992, Revolutionary Road has kept Yates’s reputation alive; according to NPD BookScan, it has sold 483,000 copies in paperback since 2004, with over half of that coming after the release of the film version in 2008. The Easter Parade, by contrast, has sold just more than 10,000 copies in paperback since 2004.
It deserves more readers. I fell in love with it from the dark, once-upon-a-time cadence of its opening sentence: “Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.” If this is a woman’s book, Yates is clear that it won’t be a light-hearted one. Emily and Sarah Grimes grow up with their alcoholic, self-deluding mother, Pookie, in a series of rental homes they can’t afford. Their father, who lives in New York City, is well-intentioned but distant, a copy-man at a newspaper who didn’t amount to much and knows it. The three women form an awkward triad, often struggling to find anything to talk about, yet forever implicated in each other’s lives.
Things look promising when Sarah meets a handsome, genteel neighbor, Tony Wilson. At the start of their courtship, he and Sarah dress up in their finest clothes, walk in the Easter Parade, and are photographed for the rotogravure section of the New York Times. But after this brief high point, the relationship goes precipitously downhill: Tony and Sarah have three children and descend into dysfunctional family life. They drink to excess; Sarah is isolated, her occasional attempts at writing going nowhere; Tony beats her.
Marriage is no happily-ever-after conclusion—it’s a prison that the prisoner has to pretend to enjoy. Little wonder that Emily mistrusts it. When Sarah tells Emily to marry one of her boyfriends, Emily snaps, “‘You’re always telling me to marry people, Sarah. You say that about every man I bring out here. Is marriage supposed to be the answer to everything?’ Sarah looked hurt. ‘It’s the answer to an awful lot of things.’”
They’re both wrong. Emily takes a different path from her sister; smart and studious, she attends Barnard, later working at magazines and in advertising. She has affairs with a number of men, most of them awful. (While I wouldn’t exactly call Yates a comic writer, Emily’s boyfriends star in a number of bleakly hilarious scenes.) Yates narrates Emily’s sexual experiences with frankness, her desire acknowledged without prudishness, and the issues that come along—one of her lovers is impotent, another is bisexual—are treated as matters of fact. She has two abortions, which Yates, again, presents without judgment. For a while she works on an essay about her experiences, and when she puts it away, it’s not because she’s traumatized or fearful of writing about abortion but because she can see, with her editor’s “gelid eye,” that the writing isn’t very good.


Yates based Emily in part on Natalie Bowen, a friend/girlfriend who worked as an editor at Putnam’s, and in part on himself. His own mother, Dookie, shared Pookie’s artistic ambitions and alcoholism, and he and his sister Ruth grew up in an environment that exactly tracks Sarah and Emily’s. The novel remains autobiographical throughout, from Sarah’s move to an under-maintained family estate on Long Island to Pookie’s eventual institutionalization.
In middle-age Emily, Yates’s stand-in, meets Jack Flanders, a poet who also seems a stand-in for Yates, animating a love affair between two versions of the same person. Flanders asks her to accompany him to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he’s been invited to teach for two years. As Jack struggles to work and teach—evoking Yates’s own experience at Iowa, when experimental writers like the Chilean novelist José Donoso competed with traditional realists like himself—he traps Emily in the web of his narcissism and despair. Insisting on writing in the main room of the house, he tells her, “I like being able to look up and see you. Moving in and out of the kitchen, hauling the vacuum cleaner.”
Emily tries to write too, but can’t, and Yates’s portrait of a woman stifled by male ego is so acute here. When she turns down Jack’s proposal of marriage and family and goes back to New York alone, it seems an excellent choice, no matter what the consequences might be.
Of course the consequences, Yates being a poet of life’s everyday brutality, are not good. Emily suffers just as much as Sarah does; her independent life is every bit as poisonous as Sarah’s housebound one. When her nephew Peter tells her admiringly, “You’ve always struck me as the original liberated woman,” the observation lands grimly and without solace.
The Easter Parade covers 40 years of massive social changes in the lives of women, but it offers almost no lengthy descriptions of the era or deliberations on what these changes mean. Instead Yates presents a compressed montage of brisk, vivid scenes, each one a masterpiece of gesture and detail. Late in life Sarah and Emily meet in a coffee shop to discuss the possibility of Sarah leaving Tony. In the middle of the scene, the narrative gaze travels to a booth across the aisle, where “a couple of young lovers were murmuring, side by side, the girl’s fingers tracing little elliptical patterns on the inner thigh of the boy’s tight, well-faded blue jeans.” It’s a tiny but electric shock of youthful sensuality that contrasts sharply with the sisters’ tense conversation. Sarah and Emily are alone together, while sex and pleasure sit nearby, almost close enough to touch.

The Easter Parade may be harsh in the fates it hands to Sarah and Emily, but it’s also even-handed in its treatment of them, two women who straddle the radical shifts of the twentieth century and discover that any path they might take is vexed with difficulty. And though neither of them makes good on their desire to write, Yates never treats their aspirations as foolish. Like the Grimes sisters, the characters in my novel have artistic ambitions that are hard to realize, and in The Easter Parade’s troubled women I found both historical connection and timeless resonance.

Yates himself was hardly a feminist. As Blake Bailey outlines in his well-wrought and wildly depressing biography, A Tragic Honesty, Yates was old-fashioned in his aesthetic and political values, and he was a pretty bad husband too. Yet he also lived his life among women—first his mother and sister, then his two wives and three daughters and assorted girlfriends—and from the evidence he understood a great deal about their lives. I think The Easter Parade is an inadvertent feminist classic, a woman’s book in the best possible meaning of that fraught term.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.

Image credit: ASTERISK.