Me and Theo down by the schoolyard
Mary Hamilton mines pop culture in her debut collection of stories.
“I really fell in love with Aesop’s Fables at the same time that I was watching Night Court and The Cosby Show,” says Mary Hamilton, piecing together sale signs in the back room of Eye Spy, the hip Lakeview glasses shop where she works as an optician. From a grab bag of inspiration that includes ’80s sitcoms, the tortoise and the hare, old Twilight Zone episodes and whatever rock songs are stuck in her head, Hamilton has forged the densely tactile, nonlinear style on display in her first chapbook, We Know What We Are, released by Rose Metal Press as the winner of its fourth annual Short Short Chapbook Contest.
As co-host of the Chicago reading series Quickies!, which gives writers just four minutes to read their story, Hamilton is an expert in the one-two punch of super-short fiction. “You can accomplish so much in a really small span of time,” she says. “It’s as much about what you don’t put in as what you do.” Hamilton’s talent for concentrated prose is apparent in the collection’s title tale, narrated by the more rebellious half of a pair of female Siamese twins. In less than 1,000 words, Hamilton traces the twins’ childhood and young adulthood in bittersweet strokes, closing on an ambiguous late-night moment on the deck of a cruise ship, in which the wakeful narrator looks into the water below and contemplates the welcoming weirdness of the deep-sea floor.
More often, though, Hamilton eschews the traditional aspects of the short story, including a recognizable narrative arc. “It always surprises me when I write a concrete story,” she says. As someone who got her undergraduate degree in television and whose writing life includes blogging about that most comfortingly manipulative of genres, the inspirational sports movie, she prefers to maintain some ambiguity in her fiction. “The rest of my life is really pop culture, so when it comes to writing, I don’t want it to be located in any place,” she says.
She often overrides the necessity of place by holding her focus on small moments, both sharply recognizable and skewed by their expanded scope. The story “She has an ache” is an almost unbearably close observation of perhaps the world’s worst stomachache, and the elliptical “Never ever” records the single act of tying a ribbon on a gift, expanding its impact in the penultimate line with a devastating double entendre.
Hamilton’s lifelong love of television is discernible in her confounding story titles, some of which are cryptic shout-outs to Cosby Show character Theo Huxtable, including “Me and Theodore dress up like Eskimos while we roast chestnuts on a hotplate.” The character doesn’t actually appear in the collection, but his invocation contributes to its melancholy undertow.
“His character was the outsider of the family,” says Hamilton, who was moved by the rare pop-culture figure who is “aware of his own sadness.”
Another Theo-inspired piece, “Me and Theodore climbed to the top of the water tower because we were scared of the tremors beneath the dirt,” is a charged refusal to accept the fearful reality of physical decay—terrain not adequately explored in the Huxtables’ living room.
Currently, Hamilton is in the throes of a fascination with Bull Shannon, the gentle-giant bailiff of TV’s Night Court. Inspired by the juxtaposition of Bull’s daunting size with his enduring sweetness, she wrote a series of stories centering on the stifling and self-determining aspects of physicality. In the first, “How’s the weather up there: An ode to Bull Shannon,” the outsize character inspires Hamilton to retell the story of David and Goliath. But in her version of the biblical tale, Goliath is a martyr, forced by his unwanted reputation into the sights of an upstart’s slingshot. The question that interested her, says Hamilton, is “What if he let himself get hit?”
Hamilton reads Sunday 15 at the Whistler.