Review

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere

by ZZ Packer



ZZ Packer has channeled the voice of the outsider. Nothing
particularly revelatory happens in her new collection of eight
short stories, at least nothing that significant on the face of
things. A Brownie troop nearly incites a brawl. A freshman Yale
loner with a "suicide single" connects with a pudgy white girl. An
ex-patriot American starves in Japan. Packer's very real, fairly
troubled protagonists share the feeling of being out of place in
their current environs, with dreams of something perhaps bigger and
definitely better. None are anything out of the ordinary. And yet,
each of the stories in DRINKING COFFEE ELSEWHERE, chronicling bits
and pieces of the African-American experience, is
extraordinary.

The standout in this group is the title story, "Drinking Coffee
Elsewhere." The title refers to the main character's coping
strategy, namely pretending to be somewhere else when the pain she
is enduring becomes too much. After Dina makes the dean's dubious
watch list for naming a revolver as the inanimate object she'd most
like to transform into during Yale freshman orientation, she
becomes a sort of self-made outcast. When she meets Heather, a
doughy fellow frosh who can't stop crying over a bad night with a
new guy, Dina gradually learns to let her in and wonders if their
relationship is something more than just platonic. Like all of
Packer's stories, "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere" offers no hard and
fast finale. Dina may or may not be gay. She may or may not be
using her outcast status at Yale as a way of coping with her
mother's death. She may or may not be the same protagonist, again a
black loner named Dina, who alienates her roommates by eating the
last slice of grapefruit in the later story, "Geese."

Another standout story in this collection is "Speaking in Tongues,"
in which a Sunday school-ish 14-year-old runs away to Atlanta and
is taken in by a pedophiliac pimp. It would be very easy for the
characters in this story to be portrayed as caricatures --- the
naïve innocent, the man who takes advantage of her, the
hardened street girl saving for a way out who ultimately rescues
the young heroine. But Packer's nuanced portrayals paint each
character a shade of gray. She is an author who presents the facts
as she sees them and lets her audience draw their own conclusions,
an all-too-lost art in a John Grisham world. Packer's characters
are often, though not always, very smart. Many are struggling to
rise above their circumstances, yet they feel trapped by things
beyond their control: their parents, their faith and their
jobs.

Several of Packer's stories examine religion with a somewhat jaded
eye. In "Every Tongue Shall Confess" a lecherous preacher molests a
fervent congregant. At the end, the man she hopes to save reveals
himself to perhaps be her savoir. Again, Packer lets the readers
decide. Most of these stories had already appeared in various
magazines and short story collections before being gathered for
DRINKING COFFEE ELSEWHERE. It's truly a stunning debut. Here's
hoping that Packer's next work, be it more stories or a novel,
comes quickly.

Reviewed by Toni Fitzgerald on January 21, 2011

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere
by ZZ Packer

  • Publication Date: March 10, 2003
  • Genres: Short Stories
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • ISBN-10: 1573222348
  • ISBN-13: 9781573222341