Families in­ Turmoil

By Jennifer Hartig
Rita Plush

Rita Plush
Penumbra, $9.99

    Rita Plush, the author of a group of stories published under the title “Alterations,” tells us in her introduction that these are stories that have lived in her memory and “hark back more than fifty years.” Perhaps that’s the problem. We’ve heard and read similar stories of early immigrant Jewish life many times before. They are moving but well-worn territory.

    The first eight stories are told from a child’s perspective, which imparts a close-up, eye-level view of events. While fictional, these stories are sharply observed vignettes with telling details of occasionally delightful but often painful childhood memories.

    I was struck that the first two short pieces, “Brooklyn Brisket” and “Soup,” were fond recollections of Jewish cooking, a source of sustenance that remains often for a lifetime. Another key story, “Love, Mona,” tells of a little girl’s initial angry rejection of her childless Aunt Mona’s attempts to comfort her after the death of her mother. The interactions between Mona and the child are delicately nuanced.

    “Halter Tops and Pedal Pushers” is an interesting story and my favorite title, a child’s view of a complex adult marriage. How is she to make sense of this abusive, needy, yet sexually satisfying relationship?

    A story from an adult perspective, “Keria,” centers on a family sitting shiva after the mother’s funeral. It has well-drawn, insightful portraits of various family members and a painful one of the father, who is incapable of expressing feelings of love or pride in his sons and daughter. He has made well-crafted women’s dresses for over half a century, his most successful creation being the Barbara Bush dress, a knockoff of the outfit Mrs. Bush wore to her husband’s inauguration. He is either angry or unresponsive with his family, but when asked a question about his business, he comes alive and is infused with enthusiasm and authority.

    The accumulation of intimate family traumas, of death, illness, and loss, is well observed but left me feeling a little claustrophobic. Then suddenly with “Odette” there is fresh air. Out of nowhere, this story takes a plunge into gun-toting, backwoods redneck country. For good measure it has an off-stage rape and murder and onstage a character with a magical brass hand that can grant Odette three wishes. Need I say more?

    This kind of fantasy is not at all in Ms. Plush’s comfort zone, which is probably why in the following stories she reverts to recognizable human beings. But somehow the spell has been broken and they seem contrived. Perhaps she has run out of the relatives on whom her earlier realistic stories were based?

    The last third of “Alterations” concerns the life Jack Paul Scanlon, a working-class man who is beginning to tire of his job as a blackjack dealer and feels the need to move on. Jack Paul is a wanderer, a man for whom “change had become a lifestyle.” Years earlier he had deserted his young wife, Nadine, and their 6-year-old daughter, Isabelle, and from then on he has avoided any long-term commitments.

    Now, however, getting close to 40 years old, he has become increasingly aware of the emptiness in his life. He has worked on many construction crews over the years and dreams of having a house of his own to fix up and perhaps even tracking down his now grown-up daughter. In the meantime, we see what has happened in the lives of Nadine and the daughter, renamed Rusty. Both are survivors, and Rusty has become a successful businesswoman, but her emotional life is in turmoil.

    This part of the book consists of six stories and many secondary characters. It has some good sections but they feel oddly disjointed. Jack Paul Scanlon never meets up with his daughter, and the final story about her ends abruptly and without resolution. The impression I got is that the whole group of stories was tacked on as filler, with the intention of expanding it into a novel at a later date. The haphazard presentation of the collection as a whole is a pity, because the early stories show genuine talent.

    Jennifer Hartig is a regular book reviewer for The Star. She lives in Noyac.
    Rita Plush is the author of “Lily Steps Out,” a novel. She lives in Queens and East Hampton, and has had fiction in The Star previously.