The Taker and Other Stories

November 19th, 2008 by EVENTS

By Rubem Fonseca; translated by Clifford E. Landers

I am a good Hyde Park liberal: I argue vigorously on the side of equality for all and I donate monthly to Doctors Without Borders. Still, I really have no idea of the depth of despair suffered by the abandoned lonely, the poorly cared for elderly, and those bereft of hope and opportunity. Reading Rubem Fonseca’s new collection, The Taker and Other Stories, is a short walk through these foreign neighborhoods. Fonseca’s writing is rough; many of his characters are angry and disaffected, and they assuage their rage, not by brooding in their rooms and writing poetry, but by brutally murdering those they see as having everything they don’t. The reading is often upsetting but it is also revelatory, and that is the thrill of reading these stories.

The first story of this new collection, “Night Drive,” sets the stage and we quickly know what we are in for. The unnamed protagonist comes home from the office to his comfortable, upper middle-class home in which “[t]he maid served the meal in the French style.” He and his wife are “fat” and the only pleasure he seems to get is from driving around after dinner and running down innocent pedestrians. “A man or a woman?” he thinks as he cruises the dark streets, “It made little difference really . . .” Soon, he finds a woman walking alone down a dark side street. “I caught her above the knees, right in the middle of her legs, a bit more toward the left leg – a perfect hit.” Back home, he says (with perfect irony) goodnight to the family who are watching TV saying, “I’m going to bed . . . tomorrow’s going to be a rough day at the office.”

The title story shows that down-and-outers, too, salve their souls with violence. The story begins with the central character going to a dentist who has to pull one of his teeth. When the dentist asks for money, the “hero” says he doesn’t have it.

I hate dentists, merchants, lawyers, industrialists, civil servants, doctors, executives, the whole worthless bunch. All of them owe me, a lot. I opened my shirt, took out the .38, and asked with such rage that a drop of spit hit his face, “What if I shoved this up your ass?” He turned white, backed away. Pointing the revolver at his chest, I started to feel lighthearted: I took the drawers from the cabinets, dumped everything on the floor, kicked the vials as if they were balls. They crackled and exploded against the wall. Busting the cuspidor and motors was harder; I even hurt my hands and feet. The dentist looked at me. Several times he must have thought about jumping me; I hoped he would, so I could put a bullet in that big fat shit-filled belly of his.

‘I’m not paying for anything more, I’m tired of paying!’ I shouted at him. ‘From now on I’m just taking.’”

Eventually, he meets a woman who turns out to have similar views but operates at a higher level. She teaches “The Taker” to build bombs so that they can kill more people. “I always had a mission, and didn’t know it,” he thinks to himself. “Now I do. Anna helped me to see it. I know that if everyone who’s fucked over did like me, the world would be better and more just.” It is interesting that there is a warped sense of justice at work here.

I have always steered clear of violent fiction, preferring to read about my world, a quiet place of manners and ideas in which brutality has no place. But something the late David Foster Wallace said in an interview opened my eyes to the value of fiction that is unsettling or painful. Wallace said, “We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside.” It is a bit of a stretch for me to identify with Fonseca’s character’s pain, the characters would have to be more fully realized for that, but I am far more sympathetic.

While most of the stories in this collection describe a world of alienation and violence, Fonseca’s writing can also be funny, gentle, and astonishing. One story, “Betsy,” is a tender story about devoted love; “The Notebook” tells about a man who uses a notebook that details his sexual exploits to trick a woman into sleeping with him; and in “Trials of a Young Writer” we meet a young man who breaks up with his girlfriend, a woman who has been typing his new novel as he dictates it to her, only to be dealt a devastating blow (that I will not reveal.) My favorite story, “The Enemy,” is about the influence of memory and its unreliability. A man is obsessed with his memories of the wonderful pals he had in high school, the great adventures they had, and the remarkable things each of them did – one studied parapsychology and told the narrator that he flew! The narrator searches for these comrades but it turns out that all his memories were greatly exaggerated or just plain false or perhaps they didn’t want to remember. “What good did it do for me to ask if he [one of his former friends] remembered a thing he wanted to forget? The one who wanted to remember, who didn’t want to build anything new, was me,” the narrator concludes.

I used to read to find myself, now I read to get out of myself. Fonseca’s shocking, funny, thoughtful, fanciful stories electrify the emotions and disturb the reader. Kafka is correct, as usual, when he says: A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul. Fonseca’s writing does exactly that, in spades.

Reviewed by Stan Izen

The Taker and Other Stories by Rubem Fonseca, trans. by Clifford Landers
Open Letter Books, 2008
Cloth, 297 pp, $16.95
ISBN-10: 1934824003

Posted in Reviews


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