I enjoy Packer’s writing, especially the details of heat and scent that put me firmly in her world.
I loved the first story in the book, the one about the Brownie Girl Scout campout. It was refreshing to read a story with authentic details about Girl Scouting. For example, Tom Perrotta mentioned Girl Scouts briefly in The Leftovers, but they were doing fundraising for another organization, which Girl Scouts aren’t allowed to do. Yes, yes, this is a horribly nitpicky detail to cite, but as a lifelong Girl Scout, I found Packer’s details helped me form a connection with her and her characters. If the details hadn’t been authentic, I wouldn’t have felt like trusting her characters. As it was, I sang the “Brownie Smile Song” and “Make New Friends” along with her characters and that helped me to connect with them, which made the story all the more effective.
But oh, man, are her stories bleak.
Packer traps her characters. They’re trapped by religion, by birth, by race. They’re trapped by patterns of behavior and social structures designed to keep them safe and, when they attempt to break out of these structures whether to go to college or to Japan or to Baltimore, they inevitably find ruin and isolation. Of course, they were isolated before they attempted to break away, so her characters are largely damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
In addition, there’s a theme of parental abandonment, either by death or by prison or by addiction that lends a certain “original sin” aspect to the stories. Perhaps these characters are destined by their parents’ situations to never be able to make a good go of it.
It’s altogether too much like real life, which is kind of a downer.
I think it would have been less of a downer if this had been a novel rather than a series of short stories. If it were a novel, there would have been just one experience of desolation rather than one after another after another.
So, I’d like to read more ZZ Packer to see what else she does with her detailed writing style, just not until after I’ve read something lighter, like something with ponies and bunnies and pigs who herd sheep.