In Beth Porter’s Resident Aliens, we get a novella, four poems and three short stories all focusing on the darker sides of post-war/post-depression era of New York through characters whose lives reflect it’s less glamorous neighborhoods.
Resident Aliens by Beth Porter is actually a collection of writings. On the menu is a novella, four poems and three short stories, all focusing on New York in the 60s. Before I discuss the various elements of this book, there is a small warning – nothing included here is for the faint of heart. These are gritty tales, darkly atmospheric with glimpses into the city’s stark realities. They show off New York’s rough edges, without makeup or apology. Written with a clear and confident voice, Porter lays this city bare and naked before her readers. But don’t let that put you off. This is well worth reading, even if some parts make you uncomfortable.
To begin with, we get the novella “The Day after the End of the World,” which makes up the bulk of this book. For me, this was the shining star of the book. The main character, Madeline (sometimes called Maddy or just Mad), is the unwanted child of Vera and Stan. They’ve recently moved to the apartment upstairs from Stan’s brother Paul. Their daughter Zipporah (or Zippy) soon realizes that her cousin doesn’t have the loving home she has, and takes Maddy under her wing. This duo becomes a trio when Kalinka (nicknamed Klinker by Zippy) and her family arrives from Wisconsin. Klinker’s father is a sociology professor, on research sabbatical in New York, studying gangs. Their warm and loving temporary home in Greenwich Village is filled with the couple’s Bulgarian roots and traditions. These three soon dub themselves the “Downtown Girls” and stick together like glue.
The story spans 15 years – from 1950 to 1965 – put together in dated diary-entry style. The headings are stark, marking the year and telling the reader how long it is until “the end of the world.” Since we know the earth didn’t explode in 1965, we can immediately assume that this is a metaphor for the story’s climax. Covering such a large time-span with economy of prose isn’t an easy task. I have to admit that as I began reading, it took me a little bit of time to get all the characters straight, since the opening entries jump around a bit. However, once Porter brings us to the meat of the story – the coming together of the Downtown Girls – everything becomes crystal clear.
Maddy really is the central character of this story, far more than Zippy or Klinker. But there’s absolutely no problem with this focus (to explain further would require a spoiler). Her troubled childhood radiates into the other girls’ lives and brings them all closer together. Even when Kalinka moves back to Wisconsin, the three continue to be together, making their reunion when Kalinka begins college in New York, all the more believable. All this is beautifully contrasted by the erratic behavior of Maddy’s mother Vera towards her daughter.
What really impressed me with this story was how well balanced Porter wrote it. She gives us just enough of the year the three were together to cement these relationships. She also doesn’t overweigh us with Vera’s torturing of Maddy, but we certainly get the point. Then she brings us forward to the girls coming together again, in a perfectly natural segue that leads to the metaphorical ‘end of the world.’ I’d even go so far as to say that the whole story comes together like a carefully choreographed dance. On its own, I’d have to give this novella a full five stars out of five.
After this, porter gives us four poems, under the umbrella title “Alien Voices.” Poetry is a very personal venue and my taste in poetry is more for the lyrical than what is on offer here. That said, these are very evocative, and display a similar strong voice as the prose. These will probably appeal to more modern poetry lovers, as well as those people who don’t usually read poetry – which is a good thing. All told, this small selection gets a strong three and a half stars out of four.
Finally in the collection we get Resident Aliens, which are three short stories. “Rena Waiting, 1962″ is about an aging and obese prostitute. “In the Alphabet, 1963″ tells the story of a Midwesterner photographer’s mistaken visit to New York’s lower east side. There she learns about the underbelly of the neighborhood from Terry, a young street-urchin, after she sprains her ankle when the heel of her shoe breaks. The final story “Way Out, 1964″ is about Baby, a girl on the brink of starting her life, and her venture into the real world, which puts her on an unexpected path. Of the three, I found the last story to be the most intriguing, with characters that felt more realistic to me. The harsh words and base actions of prostitute Rena and the constant barrage of city-slang that Terry used in the other two stories were more difficult for me to connect with. While I’m certain that there are people like both Rena and Terry in the real world, neither of them are sympathetic characters. Of course, this is the whole point of these stories – to present less-than likeable people in their natural environment. All three of these New York vignettes are powerfully written, and even if you don’t care for the characters, they are equally vivid through Porter’s prose. For this, I’d give these short stories a healthy four and a half stars out of five.
Obviously, this is a very solid collection, and together they give the readers a portrait of this particular era of New York’s history with both nuance and austerity. While I would have easily been satisfied with the opening novella on its own, the three short stories compliment this by providing us with added dimensions of the seedier sides of this city. It may be my own fault that I wasn’t totally convinced that the poems fit properly into this puzzle. While some of the parts felt greater than the whole, I’d say that “Resident Aliens” by Beth Porter deserves a solid four (and a third) stars out of five, and comes strongly recommended.
Resident Aliens by Beth Porter
Published by Womenstuff Publishing (April 16, 2013)
With thanks to the author for providing a review copy.
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