Love Is a Four-Letter Word
Edited by Michael Taeckens
Plume, 320 pp.
Is there a worse time for love than late summer? It brings life's most ugly breakups, followed by super-intense last-minute love affairs that in turn require even uglier breakups to extricate ourselves from.
If it isn't a random senior-year romance, it's angry, drunken nights on the boardwalk; if it isn't dumping your high school boyfriend on your way out of town, it's getting dumped by your college boyfriend on your way back home. There's a reason, after all, that the first big set piece of Grease is titled "Summer Nights"; summer is the year's best time for love, but like everything else, summer eventually ends.
It's this atmosphere of universal heartbreak that calls for Love Is a Four-Letter Word, an anthology of "true stories of breakups, bad relationships and broken hearts" edited by Durham author Michael Taeckens and including stories from well-known writers like Junot Díaz, Gary Shteyngart, George Singleton, Lynda Barry and well-linked lit blogger Maud Newton. The book's epigraph, from Oscar Wilde, captures the complexities of the book's tone nicely; the heart, the Irish satirist tells us, was made to be broken.
In his introduction, Neal Pollack says that the stories in this book all trend toward the kind of catharsis that is really secret nostalgia, with two main flavors: relief and regret. Relief, he says, fuels the comic stories: "However complicated my current life is, at least I'm not dating that painter I met at some long-forgotten party twenty years ago." Regret, in contrast, is "wistful, even tragic"; "I should have handled this situation differently, the writer thinks. My life would have moved in another direction, possibly better, probably worse, but I'd like to have the do-over anyway, because at least I'd still be young and have the energy and hope of youth."
If those are the choices, by my count relief wins handily in Love Is a Four-Letter Word; the majority of the stories in this book seem to me to be revenge stories, the kind of stories you tell your friends about "that jerk." It's only the fact that the joke in "that jerk" stories tends to be on the teller for having been that young or naive or so unbearably stupid in the first place that saves the book from being actually mean-spirited; for a "that jerk" story you need a writer good enough to do self-deprecation without seeming phony, and luckily for readers of Love Is A Four-Letter Word, most of the writers in this book can pull it off.
Of course, the eye is drawn immediately to the editor's own story, "The Book of Love and Transformation," which one naturally is tempted to read as the impetus for the book as a whole. This one is about the professor, Theo, who once gave Taeckens crabs, and one cannot help but wonder whether Theo might not be the T in the book's dedication, "For T.A.S." (It's not speculation that is rewarded by the text; I was hoping for an editor's note—an essay about these essays—but none ever came.) This is in some ways the cleanest, least self-conscious relief story in the book, ending uncomplicatedly with a "mean and small act of revenge" that the author is incredibly proud of himself for committing. And there is, to be sure, a certain joy in taking this sort of revenge.
But I disagree with Pollack's relief/regret axis, because there's a third variety of catharsis in this book that actually fuels the book's best stories, and that's "repentance." Repentance stories aren't really nostalgic at all; they're stories in which the writer is "that jerk"—and if there's still something a little performative and false in this kind of self-presentation, it at least strikes me as more honest, or at least more dignified, than the "that jerk" revenge-story variety. George Singleton's very funny story, for instance, is about a period in his life in which he drank too much and treated everybody badly, going so far as to break into his ex's house where he, out of misdirected childish spite, pees in her cat's litter box. The drive for repentance in this story is subtle and between the lines—and honestly Singleton doesn't seem to feel all that bad about it even now—but trust me, it's there, and it's what makes the story great.
If there's a complaint about the book it's that more of the stories weren't repentance stories, as these are the only autobiographical break-up stories that really seem worth telling once a person is older than 18. In love we all act badly, and none of us is innocent; we have all behaved unforgivably, and we may as well admit it. The truest story in the book, for my money, is a single-page comic from Patty Van Norman, a series of notes passed between two children once in love: "Dear Ugly, I will never love you, NEVER"; "Dear Fatso, you are fat and ugly and dumb, you do not love me at all." That's heartbreak; that's anguish; that's real. That's what we'll need to read when our hearts all break again this August, we who have all been both Ugly and Fatso in our time.
Michael Taeckens appears at Regulator Bookshop Friday, Aug. 21 at 7 p.m. and Quail Ridge Books & Music on Wednesday, Sept. 16 at 7:30 p.m.