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An Observatory of the Nostalgic and Ironic - Carolyn Russell’s Death And Other Survival Strategies



Having lived in Europe for close to twenty years, my repertoire as regards literature is pretty far off the US landscape. I’m more likely to escape into Marguerite Duras, Natalia Ginzburg, or Helen Oyeyemi than contemporary American offerings. Every seven or eight years, I return to the States and have an experience which, more often than not, mind-boggles. I am forced to make my way to a Nevada way station on a visit to a distant relative. I pass by these gossamer alien places of the long-forgotten. Riding along the roadways, I look out over the wide-open spaces and alternate mad congestion of traffic. We turn off the freeway, and there they inevitably are, an inescapable smorgasbord of Denny‘s, In-N-Out Burgers, taco joints and Chick-fil-A.


This is America, I think. Well, one version of it.


In an article published in the March 23, 2021 edition of ‘Vanity Fair’, entitled, “Lana del Rey Just Can’t Quit Fame”, Daniela Tijerina, wrote of the singer-songwriter, she “has a talent for romanticizing the mundane.” Perhaps something similar might be said of Carolyn Russell.


I wandered into Russell’s collection of short  stories, Death and Other Survival Strategies, and got lost in them. 


Here’s why. 


Russell writes about the cab drivers I might meet on my way from the airport in an average American city. The ones I do my best to avoid conversations with. The guys who take one look at me and peg me a Democrat. Once I'm trapped in their back seat and they‘re in full control at the wheel, en route to our destination, they attempt to rope me into an obnoxious partisan-style political debate, which I gracefully manage to sidestep.


While I avoid such characters in real life, I found myself eagerly seeking them out in Death and Other Survival Strategies, because Russell humanizes them. In “Two Cups of Coffee”, she crafts this brilliant description “with the full weight of his shoulder, he swings the (cafe) door open… makes a beeline for me and slams his way into a chair.” Russell writes of the kind men I remember from  American “movies”. The kind of guys who have “buddies" instead of friends.


Russell is at her best in her expert rendering of such types, but she is also adept at gifting us with scintillating surprise gems, like when we discover the couple from her short story “Two Cups of Coffee” are not only clandestine lovers, the guy who slams into the cafe with such sideways finesse, in an odd twist (spoiler alert here), just happens to be his lover's partner in an intelligence operative. The couple, currently on the outs over her near exposure of their affair, are spies.


Entertaining.


Thoughtful.


Teeming with wit.


These are just a few of the ways that Carolyn Russell’s fiction has been described. And such observations are incredibly astute. Russell's vignettes, tight, well-crafted, some of which surprisingly venture into the terrain of the poetic, are more often not, beset with tongue-in-cheek intelligence.


Toward the end of the book, in “Distant, Socially”, one of her more memorable works, the writer takes us into the mind’s eye of an obsessive compulsive. The unnamed narrator drags us through a journey on her weekly meticulously planned trip to the Dollar Store, where she buys her prerequisite supply of discount disinfectant. In “Bargain”, she describes a man accompanying his wife on a venture to buy a used microwave oven.


Potato chips. Used microwave ovens. Dollar Stores. Men that "smell like freshly baked biscuits.” It is all so Americana. In another marvelous little sliver of micro-fiction, called “Agave Cotton”, Russell writes: "Our first night together was all jalapeño pepper-infused tequila and impulse.”


But Russell reminds us again of her adroitness when we venture back to “Communion”, an elegiac piece in the first third of the book about a woman who watches a persnickety seagull, snobbishly eschewing her offers of potato chips at the beach. The bird Russell  beautifully writes of “navigates a sandy geometry along the seashore.”



Death and Other Survival Strategies is replete with descriptions decidedly artful about the simple, the commonplace. Russell does such with dexterity, humor. The voices in her narrative are piercing. We hear her characters as one might overhear too-loud neighbors in the midst of an argument or a young couple in an adjacent hotel room making love. 

In “Cherry Bones”, an elderly woman is involved in an internal monologue with herself about the deteriorating condition of her hips. As she rises in the morning, she thanks them for their service. We can almost hear her paper mache voice as she delivers the line: “They’re not perfect but they’re the original set, and that’s more than a lot of people my age can say.”


Russell makes art out of that which is and was formerly pedestrian. But she also beautifully handles the sentimental, for example, protagonists who recall in painstaking detail the accoutrements worn at an upper-crust wedding. In Triquetra, named after the Celtic symbol of birth, life and death, Russell explores the death of two close friends. The fiction, a beautifully rendered reminiscence is composed of a series of memories of the trio’s heady nights spent in San Francisco night clubs, dancing to Sting and Stevie Nicks. In the vignette, Russell wistfully recalls their times together. And years later, as a the second of the trio is in the throes of a cancer battle that she will shortly die of, Russell recalls her dying friend’s unusual request that she send her postcards. This, despite the relatively short distance, lived away from one another. These postcards, she believed, would carry wafts of happier times. 


There is no doubt about it, in her rendering of Death and Other Survival Strategies, Russell serves up a carefully-crafted, sometimes mournful and strange opus of nostalgia Americana.




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