On the Smallest People Alive

21Dec08

In which The Gay Recluse files a book report.

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The Smallest People Alive is a collection of short stories by Keith Banner, published in 2003 by Carnegie Mellon University Press. Set in the cultural wasteland of the Midwest, the characters live in rental apartments, housing projects and trailer parks; they work at mental institutions, amusement parks and fast-food restaurants; they eat junk food, are often obese and wear sweat pants and tube socks; they are alcoholics and drug addicts; they have low IQs and broken families; they have guns and sometimes use them! When we first started, we were a little repulsed; not so much by the subject matter, but because it seemed to us that Banner — whose prose, perhaps in keeping with the world he describes, tends to be the opposite of ruminative — was going a bit overboard in his attempts to put the edge in edgy, so to speak. It seemed that he hated all of his characters, and we hated them too.

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But as we continued reading, we found ourselves increasingly wrapped up in Banner’s world, particularly in some of the longer stories, such as the one about the man who takes a bus to Tennessee (sad Johnson City) one Christmas to visit his two daughters (including an obese lesbian who somewhat hilariously invokes the spirit of Matthew Shepard when fighting with her mother) and his ex-wife; after hooking up with another man in the station, he returns home to his girlfriend, his head swimming with unrequited longings for a life he can’t really begin to imagine. Or the fat teenage boy who has sex with his cousin, who has maybe just killed his ten-year old mentally retarded half-sister. Or the obese guy, just engaged, who sucks off his married friend after taking psychadelic mushrooms. Let’s just say that these are not your stereotypical sit-com gays, which is not to say we ever had the sense that Banner is reacting against sit-com gays, either, i.e., there’s nothing overtly political going on here. (Phew.)

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All of these stories are written in the first person, but one of Banner’s most remarkable talents is his chameleon-like ability to write in the voice of a man or a woman, a gay or a straight or a bisexual, not that he ever uses such labels (or at least earnestly). (We will note that almost all of his characters are fat or obese, which is obv our society’s other great “shame,” and one Banner effectively uses for his own purposes.) But what ties these characters together, more than their fucked-up friends and families and neighbors and jobs and towns and bodies and minds, is — at the risk of being banal — a search for love; and — most miraculously — finding it. Though it’s almost always degrading or disgusting when it arrives, love is often accepted by Banner’s leads with a nobility and forgiveness that makes even these most despicable of lives seem worth living.

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7 Responses to “On the Smallest People Alive”

  1. 1 orinink

    this book sounds interesting,i saw “slumdog millionaire” ,is it as voyueristic or does it have the humanity of Diaz’s “Drown”?Do the characters see there lives as fucked-up or does the author or the reader interpret it as such.If the mid-west is a cultural wasteland and everyone interested in culture leaves it to come here ,what effect must that have on new york culture as of late,Kmart on 8th st?or the green market,good or bad.If everyone keeps leaving the mid-west because it is a”wasteland”then how does it change?I know maybe the people we push out of there ghettoes when we move into new york can be trucked there.I dont believe there is such a thing as a cultural wasteland,America is america ,a culture with rich history.We are just afraid to acknowledge it,because it would mean admitting truths about ourselves.Instead we embrace an elitist psuedo-european ideal,one that will allow us to be bourgy and waspy and royalty even if we have cornrows or our last name is Lee.So therefore when we hear the real stories of america which is obesity-because we are too damn greedy and fill our overworked poor up with oil bread and suger ,then hate them for looking and being downtrodden.While the “elite”starve themselves so they wont look to be the real greedy ones,on diets that deny the fact that no soil on american land could possibly have escaped being polluted by the last 50 years of chemical plants,nuclear plants and highway pollutants.The “poor” are the rich stories of america,from stienback ,to hughes to junot Diaz to your recomended author.The smallest people are those who do not value there own.

    • Thanks for the comment, Orinink. I think you would like Banner; there’s nothing condescending about his writing; when I say “wasteland,” I mean to refer to those parts of the country that have perhaps been ravaged the most by capitalism (and ironically, moral conservatism) and have seen the least in return, by almost any standard/measure. I haven’t read any Junot Diaz, but he’s on the list!

  2. OMG!! I’ve actually read this book (A long time ago)!!! A friend gave me the galley and I was on a Virgin flight to London from NY, transfixed and utterly absorbed. I remember this really cute flight attendant grabbing my arm chatting me up, breaking my obssesion with this book. He was soooo adorable and yummy and asked me if I was OK. I was kind rude to him because I wanted sooo bad to finish reading the book. I ended up spending the entire flight reading most of it… and then I accidently left the galley in the seat when I de-boarded. Jet-lagged and with meetings ahead of me, I didn’t realise I left the book behind until a day later… I never finished the last part!

    I didn’t hate the characters it was more like Jane Goodall and the chimps for me for me.

    WILD, of all books, I cannot believe you mentioned this one! The man on the bus to Tennessee (Oh,Jesus!) with the Matthew Shepard Daughter–sooooo spot on! Kind of sad, they’re all really sad. but really interesting like car-wreck interesting. Kind of like that fiction writer from Columbia with her twisted short stories…what’s her name!? It eludes me at the mo.

    • Thanks for the comments, Rottin’ and JG. Will have to check out George Saunders…and JG, lemme know about the Columbian when you think of her name!

  3. Wow, you’ve been reading hella avidly this month. George Saunders had a great short story about an obese man, also in the first person. I exerpted the ending, since it was probably the best two paragraphs I read this year:
    http://rottenindenmark.vox.com/library/post/werent-the-simplest-tasks-hard.html

  4. Columbian; AM HOLMES. For some reason her work, Things You Should Know reminded me a lot of the above mentioned. I don’t know if she still teaches at Columbia. Would that no longer make her Columbian? lol.


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