Ben Greenman’s wistful collection of short stories, What He’s Poised to Do, begins at a remove. For a book that both posits and ponders the importance of interpersonal communication, Greenman chooses to keep readers at arm’s length—at least until he’s gotten to know you better. His use of characters identified only by third-person pronouns in the title piece underlines the faceless isolation that an unhappy businessman out on the road feels as he engages in a cool affair with a woman who works at his hotel.
There is an echo of the relationship between Lydia and Ricardo Reis in Jose Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis in that even within an ongoing carnal relationship, Greenman’s guest remains alienated from everyone to a debilitating extent. The businessman’s one remaining open conduit of exchange is the series of postcards he writes the woman, his wife, and his son. Even this method of expressing his feelings stumps him at the end of the story, revealing that Greenman’s title is, if not ironic, then overly optimistic.
“He sits down at the desk, finds a pen, and holds it over a postcard, uncertain exactly what he’s poised to do.”
Greenman underscores this theme throughout the collection by postmarking the first page of each story, indicating the date and place from which it was sent. Even a cursory glance at the contents page gives the reader a pretty good idea of the breadth of Greenman’s stages for his universal passion play; settings range from North Africa, in 1851, to Atlanta, in 2015, and everywhere (and when) in between—including the imagined Lunar City, in 1989, and the confounding Australindia, in 1921.
One standout piece, To Kill the Pink, is written from Harlem in 1964 at a time when both racial and personal boundaries were burning. Greenman writes as an African-American man who, after a tragic incident, decides to travel to Malawi to better understand his heritage and the extraordinary woman he loves. When he asks her how a “twenty-four-year-old black girl who’s never been out of New York City” knows so much about the world, she replies, “I always paid attention … while you were busy studying the human comedy, I was trying to figure out the human drama.”
“You’re the sad mask; I’m the happy mask,” he answers. “Takes both of us to put on a play.”
While Greenman’s gift for whimsy does surface from time-to-time, owing perhaps to the impossibility to cage such a formidable beast, he is wearing his sad mask for much of What He’s Poised to Do.
“I write often about sadness and loneliness … the only cure, I think, is intimacy,” Greenman writes in About the Author, “which is what the people in my stories are struggling to achieve.”
It is telling that Greenman’s stories revolve around written correspondence, a form of communication quite possibly in danger of becoming archaic. How will future generations understand us, or how will we ultimately understand ourselves, if our written interactions diminish to texts of 160 characters?
If there is a lesson to be had from this book, it’s this: Go write a letter to someone you love.