Archive for April, 2020

Checking In With Linda Mannheim

April 23, 2020

There’s an 80s/90s pulp feel to Linda Mannheim‘s collection. Published by Influx, probably the best of the new indie presses, This Way to Departures opens with an episode from the dirty, madcap days of Miami in the Reagan era. Mannheim puts the theme out front:

But it was noir that we came back to again and again, noir that we loved – film noir, with its shadows and horizontal lines and slats of light seen through venetian blinds… Everyone’s corrupt. Death and danger wait in each vacant room. Lovers betray one another.

The narrator is describing the old movies that she and her boyfriend watch over and over – but Laura the narrator will get involved in some real life noir, and betray her own lover, when she runs into Miguel, a refugee from El Salvador who wants Laura to help him find two other refugees, union organisers who fled north ahead of the death squads. Laura’s a reporter by day but in her quixotic runaround with Miguel she’ll have a brush with the other side of the sunny state: ‘Cocaine kept the economy going when tourism dropped off. In the Everglades, Nicaraguan exiles had been training to join the Contras, squatting in the swamps with shiny mortar launchers.’

Latin America haunts these tales. The title story charts an on-off relationship between the narrator and a man she met at college in the Vietnam era, a campus firebrand who leads the rallies and eventually goes off to join the Sandinistas. Now and again Danny comes back into her life, and the narrator wonders ‘what he was going to do after the elections, whether he could stay in Nicaragua once the Sandinistas were no longer in power.’ When she picks Danny up at the airport, he’s freaked out by NYC: ‘once we get down to Broadway, he starts bumping into people. He apologises, but then he does it again. And the racks outside the novelty shops make him stare’. It’s a lovely portrait of a man who’s given a huge chunk of his life to an ideology and a regime, and a testament to the lack of choice about who we fall in love with.

‘This Way to Departures’ is a kind of border line in the collection. After that, the stories get less about times and places, and more personal. ‘The Christmas Story’ is an attempt by a writer to write a heartwarming seasonal story for her friend’s children – but it turns out to be a grim piece about her own childhood growing up in a freezing tenement block. It gets so cold that the tenants stage a rent strike, get local media involved, and achieve a victory of sorts – the landlord makes a personal appearance and turns the heating back on. The landlord hands out presents for the kids, then mutters ‘You people live like pigs,’ while climbing back into his Cadillac. ‘It’s not that I want to go back to where I grew up,’ says the writer, ‘I just don’t want to be somewhere that erases that time and place.’

And that could be the underscore for this collection as a whole – it’s so economical, Mannheim’s style, and yet no time or place is erased, nothing is forgotten. Back in the front half, we have flawless themed portraits – ‘Butterfly McQueen’ explores American racism through the career of one black character actor, while ‘Missing Girl, 5, Gone Fifteen Months’ underlines by-the-numbers institutionalism in the face of avoidable tragedies. ‘Waiting for Daylight’ is a brilliant story about a traveller who settles in a college town – but the last line will chill you. And the collection ends with ‘Dangers of the Sun’ – on the face of it, an ordinary newspaper tale of medical negligence, but it turns into something absolutely heartbreaking.

In her acknowledgements, Mannheim writes of ‘how amazing and groundbreaking British indie publishing is right now.’ This collection is proof that it does at least throw out some classic stories.