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Review: Get a Grip by Kathy Flann

Published in Carve in 2012, Kathy Flann's "Neuropathy" dunks the reader into the life of a nerve-damaged and questionably sane widow who meddles in her son’s affairs and watches The Shopping Network in search of her calling from God. Just as remarkable as the multiple levels of pathos is the narrative's second-person perspective, positioning the reader not as the confidant of a first-person narrator or ghostly observer of a third-person assortment, but as haunted Ma Polasky herself. Flann admits the second-person technique has yet to catch on, and reports that she's received rejection letters completely on the basis of the "you" pronoun.

We're pleased to see "Neuropathy" reappearing as the first of eight pieces collected in Flann's George Garrett prizewinner Get a Grip. Regrettably, it is only one of two pieces that employ the second-person perspective (the other is the titular "Get a Grip"), but the other six stories are no less absorbing for the additional degrees of distance they place between reader and actor. It might be the impression left upon me by "Homecoming"—which begins the day after a bicycle accident—but I'd liken the magnetism of these stories to that of a YouTube reel of BMX wipeouts: painful to watch and yet strangely comic as they unfold, braiding both random bad fortune and intimations of inevitability. The slow-motion spills in Get a Grip are certainly more choreographed than an incidental meeting between a human knee and six linear feet of gravel and asphalt, but readers will be too absorbed in Flann's direct and emotionally perceptive prose to peek around for crash pads or strings.

The disparate cast within the collection are all residents of the Baltimore area. Maryland's largest city has a reputation as a tough town, and the characters in Get a Grip are as rough around the edges as those of popular imagination. Flann's characters argue and copulate, celebrate and sabotage, drink, get high, entertain doubts and delusions, and are reckless in love and inclined to self-destruction. One by one, they are put to the test, finding themselves at the mercy of believably unbelievably bad situations: cars are stolen, hearts explode, children go missing, wounds get infected, sons take swings at their fathers, parents steal from their children. The rawest emotional nerves are the ones oriented towards our family members, and Get a Grip crackles with the complications and conflicts of blood: we see jealousy and betrayal between siblings in "Half a Brother" and "Little Big Show;" there's a vicious explosion between an unbalanced fourteen-year-old pro circuit gamer and his ex-punk father in "Show of Force;" in "Leaving Reno" a woman finds herself simultaneously coping with her hellion teenage son and the reappearance of her estranged father. These characters come from households warped by alcoholism, domineering or absent fathers, the early death of a mother, and spouses who died of overdoses.

It's the richness of context that lends these stories a sense of inevitability. It’s also what makes the second-person stories particularly incisive: being placed in the shoes or over the shoulder of a person, taking in events as they witness them, and acting upon them as is natural to them. The empathy-building potential of literary fiction has been making the rounds in the news over the last couple of years, and Get a Grip demonstrates why: these stories imply that people are circumscribed by who they are, and their very identities are accumulations of accidents, contingencies, and decisions that all seemed reasonable at the time. It's difficult to sympathize with someone who acts like a perfect ass until their history and motivations become apparent.

The stories in Get a Grip don't have tidy endings; often they end with a character just finding a moment to catch his breath. But Flann gives us reason to hope that something might be about to give: maybe these stories don't represent turning points, but inflection points preceding a possible change of trajectory. Even as the worst day of one's life comes to a close, there's still tomorrow to figure out—and that's the good news.

Get a Grip was published by Texas Review Press in October 2015. Available for purchase from local bookstores and online.