Deborah Levy’s short book of short stories is pitched at a relatively high key but a deeper note of sadness underpins it. Her characters are splendidly individual but share a sense of having strayed from home, or of not having a home, or of wondering what it might be like to have a home. In “Black Vodka,” the first and title story, a writer of advertisements at “a leading agency” refers to himself as “the crippled poet,” but that does not stop him from sleeping with a colleague’s girlfriend. Or maybe he feels being “crippled” entitles him? Sleeping with friends’ girlfriends might be how he takes revenge on men whose spines are not misaligned, men whose backs lack humps. It is he who gives the name “black vodka” to a flavored drink to be marketed in formerly Communist countries where noir is trending.
Levy, an English author who was shortlisted for the Man Booker for her novel Swimming Home, is equally perceptive about men and women. There are ten stories here, and each is something like — well, not a bon-bon. More like a sip of whisky or a quick slam of Black Vodka to the back of the throat. As “the crippled poet” says, Black Vodka is “the edgy choice for the cultured and discerning.”
At the end of the title story, the crippled poet, looking forward to getting laid, rejoices in the world, in all there is “to record and classify”:
Life is beautiful! Vodka is black! Pears are naked! Rain is horizontal! Moths are ghosts. Only some of this is true, but you should know that this does not scare me as much as the promise of love.
It’s hard not to be cheered by his ebullience.
In “Vienna,” Magret microwaves langoustines before bedding a man she has brought home in her husband’s absence. (In general, the women in Black Vodka are at least as bold as the men if not more so.) “She is middle Europe, he thinks. She is Vienna. She is Austria. She is a silver teaspoon. She is cream. She is schnapps. She is strudel dusted with white icing. . . .” And then she’s through with him, inviting him to walk downstairs with her while she turns off at the indoor pool. What does the guy think now — now that he’s on his own again? He thinks that “he cannot live without his children,” who are with his divorced wife.
The narrator of “A Better Place to Live” is a young man whose father deserted the family before he was born and whose mother, a historian, died when he was 12. After that came years of orphanages, in one of which he met a girl named Elisa. The story occurs on the day he and Elisa, living in London, are married.
His mother once told him, “Be sure to enjoy language, experiment with ways of talking, be exuberant even when you don’t feel like it because language can make your world a better place to live.”
Burdened with childhood grief, loneliness, and abuse, he takes his late mother’s advice. “Beautiful breath beautiful breath beautiful breath,” he says to himself, in his head. He hopes that long after he and Elisa are dead “a robot will find this document [the story] and correct my spelling mistakes with his silver fingers. Although he will look nothing like me, he too will be a son without a mother, his eyes open all night long.”
Levy’s ability to get inside her characters, who are various and interesting, and the evident compassion she brings to their predicaments, lend to her work a realism that is less often encountered in these days of literary irony, cheap jokes, and sci-fi. In fact, it is a relief to be able to sink into a story and experience the world from another point of view — not just the author’s point of view but a character’s point of view. Would that more writers wrote with respect and feeling for their own work. The only problem with Black Vodka is that it is too short. •