Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer

Diana Evans
Friday 27 February 2004 01:00

Few writers now are able to launch careers in fiction on the strength of a collection of short stories. The novel is as luminous as ever, and so it takes a particularly striking voice to get noticed. When such a voice does emerge, short fiction, with its demand for structure, immediacy and an iron grip on character, can whet the appetite for what may come after - a novel, or further, tighter stories. In the case of the spunky American writer ZZ Packer - young, black, cocky, wearer of leather jackets, award-winning Yale graduate, published in The New Yorker and endorsed by John Updike - the short story works as something of a catapult.

Many of these eight stories have been published elsewhere and have drawn attention as sophisticated, persuasive works. There is an apparent ease of composition and confidence of direction. There is enough texture of detail, colour, cruelty and sensibility to give the writing that elusive feeling of reality. But the winning component is Packer's authorial voice: uncompromising, funny, angry without the obsession, political without tedium, intensely human, peppered with astonishing moments of poetry. It's the nature of this voice, breathed through the lives and disasters of vivid characters, that often lends the stories the richness of a novel.

Packer has an eye for a quirky situation and knows how to exploit it. "The Ant of the Self" is unforgettable in its shadowing of a disgruntled son bailing his father, Ray Bivens Jr, out of jail. Ray persuades Spurgeon to drive him to his mistress's house to pick up some birds (real ones, in cages), and then on to Washington to sell them. It's packed with sarcasm and fierce dialogue, and achieves a fine balance between pathos and hilarity, between its exploration of family relationships, the individual psyche and the political landscape.

Similarly impressive is "Speaking in Tongues", the story of church girl Tia (the black church appears frequently), who runs away to Atlanta to escape the clutches of religion and find her mother. She comes across prostitutes and burger joints, hunger and sex, and the desperate, spooky atmosphere of girlhood is skilfully conjured. This is a book full of journeys and escape, of characters displaced or alone, who often find that their destinations pose even more profound threats to their survival.

Packer keeps a stiff focus on race issues, setting the stories in varying eras of black American life. There's sometimes a need for breathing space from this, partially provided in the positioning of the political image. A story's most piercing moment might happen at the edge of something huge - Martin Luther King in the background, for example - which sheds more light on the social picture. We hear the characters' secret concerns, so that the sense of individuality and idiosyncracy, which is sometimes missing from black writing because of its primary focus on race, is given greater clarity.

While Packer does seem over-preoccupied with black and white, she allows her lens to take in the grey areas between. In her darting through history and the present, she poses that essential question: how much has really changed?

If Toni Morrison has given black America back its history, ZZ Packer will shed light on its contemporary life. Serious and contentious, she never loses hold of the craft and delight of storytelling. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere has done its work: it has established a voice that will want to be heard again.

Diana Evans's first novel, '26A', will be published by Chatto & Windus

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