When asked to describe, in a 2012 interview, the “common thread” running through the 14 stories that comprise her first collection DAMAGE CONTROL, Amber Dermont replied that she is “interested in difficult situations people find themselves in and how they navigate them.” That’s an apt summary of the varied array of problems and challenges facing the characters in this robust, consistently original collection, one that reveals Dermont as a writer who is drawing on a deep well of talent first apparent in her widely-praised debut novel, THE STARBOARD SEA.
Many of the protagonists of Dermont’s stories are teenagers or young women barely in their 20s. That’s understandable because, as she acknowledged in the same 2012 interview, she’s “really fascinated by teenagers and by the period of adolescence, because it’s when you define yourself.” Stories like “Lyndon,” “Sorry, You are Not a Winner,” “Notes Toward an Anatomy of Pain” and “The Master of Novices,” among others, feature young women struggling to cope with actual or threatened loss. And yet there is such enormous variety in these stories there’s no danger of the collection taking on a monochromatic cast.
"DAMAGE CONTROL is an apt title for a collection that deals with a diverse group of characters trying to minimize the harm they’ve inflicted on themselves and that’s been wreaked by others. It’s the work of an enormously talented writer, one that offers an assortment of pleasures for anyone who appreciates smart short fiction."
Despite Dermont’s preoccupation with young women, death is a persistent presence in these stories. Elise, the protagonist of the opening story, “Lyndon,” is on a trip with her mother to the birthplace of the 36th president, continuing a pastime she had pursued with her late father. In “The Language of Martyrs,” the narrator’s parents survive several brushes with death from terrorist attacks on a trip to Israel and then both die of a “mortal tear in the heart muscle” on the flight home. Eugenia, who doubles as a cleaning woman and occasional lover of her boss, Matt, must attend to a father afflicted with a brain tumor and a mother dying of alcoholism in “Sorry, You Are Not a Winner."
Among the many strong stories, there inevitably are standouts. The title story takes place in and around Houston’s “Sis and Hasty Breedlove School of Southern Etiquette,” where working-class teenage boys are recruited to help teach the social graces, “nothing less than the grammar of living,” to their often sullen female contemporaries. Martin Foster, the 28-year-old man who runs the school, claims his “line of work is more dangerous than most people suspect.” He's in a relationship with the Breedloves’ daughter, who’s facing criminal charges in a corporate financial scandal. That’s only the first of the story’s multiple complications.
For anyone who thinks even the best fiction can’t compete with true stories of kidnap victims like Elizabeth Smart, “Afternoons in the Museum of Childhood” provides an emphatic rebuttal. Its 15-year-old narrator has accompanied her parents from Arizona to Edinburgh as part of the process of recovering from her capture by a man who calls himself “Messiah.” Dermont masterfully portrays a young woman trying to sort out her complex feelings about her ordeal and the man responsible for it. “I miss my disappearance,” she says. “I was never so important as when I was gone.” Despite her psychologist-mother’s efforts to convince her that she’s the same girl she was before the kidnapping she recognizes that “something bad did happen, and I feel as though I’ll spend the rest of my life searching for more bad things to come.”
While it would be inaccurate to characterize Dermont as an experimental writer, in a couple of stories she does depart from more conventional structures. “Assembling the Troops,” one man’s story from the playground, “where you cultivate your future,” to early middle age when he concludes “You kidded yourself that you were the man with a plan,” is a second-person narrative assembled from single-paragraph fragments that feels reminiscent of a Lorrie Moore story. “A Splendid Wife” is a tongue-in-cheek crime story, recounting the effort of a detective who has lost his own wife to suicide to account for a series of disappearances of New Jersey women married to health care professionals who have a preference for Dodge Vipers.
Dermont has a striking talent for attention-grabbing first sentences: “My father died because our house was infested with ladybugs.” (“Lyndon”). “Malcolm and I stayed in touch only because each of us was privately convinced that the other deserved to fail.” (“Number One Tuna”). “The second wife vanished five days after the first wife, late on a Sunday morning.” (“A Splendid Wife”). “When the baby fell out of the car, she bounced twice.” (“The Order”). These openings aren’t mere gimmicks, because she uses them so effectively to propel us into the story; what follows delivers on the promise of such aggressive beginnings.
DAMAGE CONTROL is an apt title for a collection that deals with a diverse group of characters trying to minimize the harm they’ve inflicted on themselves and that’s been wreaked by others. It’s the work of an enormously talented writer, one that offers an assortment of pleasures for anyone who appreciates smart short fiction.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on March 29, 2013