(Black Lawrence Press, 2014)
Review by Gabrielle Pastorek
When the phone call arrived—the one that led to the publication of Your Life Idyllic, the one that brought the good news that he’d won the St. Lawrence Book Award for fiction—Craig Bernier was left alone in silence for more than two hours with no one to tell. In a recent interview with the TribLive’s Rege Behe, Bernier says, “It was a powerful lesson in meditation and just sitting in the moment and being quiet with the news. Hearing this wonderful news I’d been trying to make happen for 15 years and having to be quiet with it was a lovely lesson for a writer…” Family and friends weren’t picking up the phone, and even his regular dentist was out when he showed up for his appointment. All was silent.
Bernier’s still, reflective first reaction—albeit forced—is so indicative of the characters in his debut collection, Your Life Idyllic, that it would seem those quiet two hours were simply meant to be. The stories in Your Life Idyllic are full of quietly desperate characters, each looking to grab ahold of some small moment of peace to keep them afloat in an otherwise gray, cold struggle for day-to-day survival. Although set in a bleak, post-industrial Detroit, Bernier’s short story collection manages to capture the moments of quiet beauty that compel his characters to endure the hardships and heartbreaks of blue-collar life in Detroit. It’s a collection of nostalgia—a driving force that, despite constant opposition, continuously pulls these characters towards family and memories of a better, booming past.
Bernier’s characters are often juxtaposed to their successful counterparts—“successful” in that some get out while others don’t. But within these beautifully-crafted narratives, we find that neither half is ever quite complete without the other. Even the ex-Marine of “Bender,” who finds a way out of Detroit and has settled outside of the city with his wife and kids, cannot escape the pull toward his brother, a recovering alcoholic who seems to be deteriorating along with the city.
In the closing paragraph of this story, the speaker describes the neon lights he drives past after dropping off his brother at the rehab center. He begins to see them in a new—maybe even hopeful—light, now that he knows his brother actually made most of the signs. The last image he describes is a wine bottle that fills up in four sections, “from bottom to top, then begins again, never, ever overflowing in its endless cycle of illumination and promise.” This ending is characteristic of the entire collection, as Bernier manages to weave these clips of lighted beauty into the cold, gloomy palette of disconnected families, alcoholism, layoffs, and missed opportunities in Detroit.
Much like their characters, these stories don’t end with tidy packages of anything—neither hope nor despair. Instead, these endings are raw in their honesty, and often hit quiet notes that bleed into the next beginning. In “Just Enough Rope,” a story about a second-generation “factory rat,” the narrator and his mother spend a long night going through his recently-deceased father’s albums. By the time they’re finished, it’s late and cold and all he wants to do is cook Cornish game hens for his mother; and the story closes thusly: “I wanted so bad to know how to cook those fucking birds, how to do something nice.” It’s a risky move, perhaps—letting the character come out and tell us what he wants, and to end on that, no less—but in the hands of Bernier, this last line hits every right note. It portrays so wonderfully the quiet flames of wanting within this speaker—a sentiment that carries throughout the collection—even if that want is just one nicely-cooked hen.
And sometimes, these stories are just outright funny. “The Chief” follows the narrator and his nephew on an errand to Kmart just after Christmas.
It’s the day after Christmas and my sister Fina is helping Paulie, her seven-year-old, get buckled up in my truck. The boy lobs yet another question about Santa. All morning, it’s been non-stop. Paulie wants answers, particularly how Santa could overlook the Play Station 3 at the top of his list while getting everything beneath it. I have no way to explain his mother’s moratorium on technology and war toys, the effects it has on Santa’s distribution chain and global supply strategies.
The story, of course, is not without its dreary musings and flashbacks, mostly centered on factory employees who also happen to be the speaker’s family. But Bernier’s use of wit and humor, which comes across so charmingly through the narrator’s relationship with his nephew, offers us that distinctive glimmer of hope—here, in the form of a Play Station 3.
Bernier’s writing is so vivid and smart that every last detail comes alive, from a neon sign above a bar to Madonna in a yoga studio. His knowledge of the city and unwavering ability to capture it and its inhabitants on the page is nothing short of remarkable. As Michael Zadoorian has said of the collection, “Read this homeboy.” It’s a fun, engaging, and pertinent work. I will certainly be on the lookout for more of Bernier’s writing to come.