The second greatest experience is cracking the spine on a book by an author totally unknown and being captivated almost instantly by a new voice and a compelling story.
"Last Year's Jesus" by Ellen Slezak (Hyperion Press, $22.95, 237 pages) is a fabulous read of the second sort. A few paragraphs in, and I knew I was hooked. That seldom happens with a collection of short stories, especially stories set in ... Detroit.
Detroit? You mean, where they make the cars? That Detroit?
Yet Detroit has its literary class. Elmore Leonard's crime novels qualify. Way back in the '70s, Arthur Hailey took a shot at the racy life of auto industry moguls, but he managed to bungle some important details. Also decades ago, Joyce Carol Oates, while teaching at a local university, cranked out some stories and a couple of novels -- "Them" being the most familiar -- using Detroit as a background. But her characters were less rooted in that particular city and might have existed in any decaying urban area.
Slezak's people are perfectly placed -- they could live nowhere but Detroit.
She knows this territory cold: What the lawns and backyards look like, the beauty parlors, the pharmacies, the restaurants, grocery stores, boulevard and street names, cemeteries, churches and Tiger Stadium -- you could draw a map from her descriptions.
I should know. Even though I haven't lived there for years, Detroit is my home town.
This meticulous sense of place underpins Slezak's stories. The characters grow from a certain soil that is enriched with detail and smells right. She has planted her people with humor, sensitivity and unsparing honesty. You may not love all her characters, but you believe they are real and a few of them, 11-year-old Mona Palagolla is one, may break your heart.
The title story, "Last Year's Jesus (or Passion Play)," opens on a cold day with a young woman following the action through the Hamtramck (pronounced ham-tram-ick) section of the city, where clouds cover the participants "like a lid." A Mercy College student, orphaned and living with a strict Polish Catholic grandmother, the girl describes herself as six feet tall, plain, with an engine block of a body. "Everything about me -- forehead, eyes, cheeks, shoulders, calves -- is broad and uninterrupted by a mark of beauty or even an interesting defect." But she is not without fantasy.
As the procession marks the stations of the cross, horses draped in purple bathroom rugs and Mary clutching her blue pillowcase veil, our clumsy heroine is attracted to a gorgeous hunk who was Jesus in last year's play.
"Objectively speaking," she asks the reader, "as mortal beings, is there a road higher than sex with a man who'd been Jesus?"
The answer to that question involves a rival for the man who played Jesus, a nun and ultimate disappointment, but in the telling we are treated to a fascinating vignette.
In "Here in Car City," CeAnn buys the only building standing in a block of gritty burnouts -- a small apartment house left vacant for nine months. Her mother shrieks, "In that neighborhood? Are you crazy? Even GM is moving out." But CeAnn creates Pensione Detroit because " ... car city needs some economical, cozy places to stay."
In "Patch," Sarah recalls how she and her lover Sam, noticing that businesses were closing around them and moving out, " ... decided to stay, to hold on to their little patch of Detroit for whatever it was worth."
Each of these stories highlights loyal Detroiters with no clear sense of their futures or even is which direction they should point themselves. They are like the city itself -- hanging on and hoping for a better day. Tiny gains are made, but will they stick?
Although these characters don't seem to be going anywhere, I think the author definitely is. She has described a locality so well it seems to reflect the whole world. That's a literary gift.
Short stories tend to be neglected by the public until an author has produced a popular novel. I hear many discerning readers say they find stories unfulfilling. But this collection of nine stories and a brief novella is one to savor. Book groups should consider "Last Year's Jesus" for selection. I think they would find in these pages material provocative enough for riveting discussion.
Meanwhile, I will be first in line to buy a novel by Ellen Slezak -- whenever it appears. I hope it's soon.
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