Mammoth Books; 1st edition (September 21, 2009). ISBN 13: 978-1595390219 $11.95
Review by Adolfo Mejia
Mr. Agreeable: Stories by Kirk Nesset
When I lived in San Francisco, I lived in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. Above Bob Marley. Anyone that's ever visited San Francisco, visited Haight-Ashbury knows exactly which house I’m referring to. My roommates and I would sit in our living room and fraternize (shout at, really) with the crowds that gathered kitty corner from us and photographed posing members of their group. It was easy to make up the back-stories of so many of the passers-by. One of my roommates, a Catalan who inhabited our living room, had a knack for taking it further, would lean out the window and start yelling at certain tourists in a language that, to me, sounded somewhere between Spanish and fabricated. He could smell his own was the way he put it. Some of those tourists, one or two that weren't frightened by this bearded, red-haired figure shouting out of a second-story window, would come up and sit and reminisce with him about their motherland.
There were the array of individuals that rushed or meandered by our apartment with any number of stories in them that had neither the time nor the inclination to share their particular circumstances; but, perhaps, had I figured out the exact level on which to relate as my Catalan friend had, I may have had some luck in luring one or two up into our apartment for a chat over a beer, glass of wine, or other comfort. Kirk Nesset's collection of stories, Mr. Agreeable, feels like a collection of these short chats, as though he found that point of relation and the tourists or neighbors sat long enough to share a bit of their stories with him.
The characters in Mr. Agreeable are as sorted—and sordid—as some of the characters I encountered in San Francisco. Like someone confident enough to approach these individuals in the first place, Mr. Nesset doesn’t shy away from anything and his stories often remind me of the dark tales found in the books of Mark Richard or Cormac McCarthy, such as one of the more gruesome scenes found in “The Cage”: “He unsheathes his knife at last and leans forward, stabs a shark in the snout. The thing rears, flails a little. He stabs it again. Off it careens, trailing ribbons of blood. Another shark nibbles. Alt strikes with his knife—once, twice, thrice. He has to pull hard and twist and yank the blade from the gristle” (69). And the scene grows more violent from there, pitches into the ending the dark waters call for.
One of Mr. Nesset’s strengths is his eye for humor in awkward, uncomfortable situations. When a young man in the opening story, “Believing in People,” propositions the narrator, who is a stranger, in a market to pose as his girlfriend, he hopes to make his ex-girlfriend jealous; but the narrator quickly creates an unexpected and unflattering back-story. “Chuck says you pack a punch in the sack, I say to Lisa.
“Whatever he says, says Lisa, flushing. He’s the expert.
“I wouldn’t call him that.
“No, I guess I wouldn’t either, she answers” (3).
It’s the honest response of many of the characters that not only brings out the humor but also the humanity of their tales; again, something for which Mr. Nesset has a knack. In the most dangerous circumstances—amongst swarming sharks in “Cage,” hiding under a table during an earthquake in “When the Earthquake Came,” or hiding from an angry husband in “Timing”—as dislikable as the characters first appeared, I felt that empathy that’s so necessary to a good story, where I might not agree with their choices, might not even want them to succeed (in the case of the main character of “Cage” his failing to do what he wanted would have been to his benefit), but I did want to understand their motives.
The collection feels like small sketches appropriate to these days when so many of us have time for little else, and if there was any reason I didn’t feel I was fully connecting with the characters it had largely to do with the brevity of the stories. At times, when he’d really caught my attention with a piece, I wished Mr. Nesset had taken certain stories, like “Scream” or “Snakes Having Babies,” a few pages longer; I wished Mr. Nesset had followed these characters back out onto the street and strolled a few blocks with them, cajoled them into sharing a few more words about themselves before letting them on their way.
Trying to summarize the stories within Mr. Agreeable into one neat sentence or even one neat paragraph is daunting in the way that it would be to summarize San Francisco with its myriad of neighborhoods and denizens into a two or three word, welcoming motto; its easiest to say that San Francisco is a city I love for the people, for the characters and that might be the easiest way to recommend Mr. Agreeable—for the characters: insecure, crazy, pent-up, surreal.
Mr. Agreeable hits highs and lows throughout. Many of the characters seemed to feel numb to their situations, at times wanting to find their way back into living as well as their lives, as in “Heartland,” the story of a man who chances upon a woman with whom he once shared a moment of passion. “He could kiss her now, he knows, if he wished. His desire, however, is nil. The pills the doctor prescribed allow him to dress, shave, make breakfast, to put a voice on and face for the office, but altogether obliterate passion. Amanita herself is on meds, herself in contest with darkness. She takes the ones Kirby took first, which clenched his head like a fist” (47). And many of the characters seem to be clenched tight in their situations and without much choice but to be crushed or madly wriggle their way out. Mr. Nesset triest to capture the last breaths of that constriction, and the mad flailing of their escapes.
The writing is gritty and full and at times reminds me of another San Francisco area rich with impressions, of the art in the Mission district’s Clarion Alley, murals by a variety of artists differing in color and shape as much as Mr. Nesset’s stories do. Denizens of the larger city might not fit into certain neighborhoods; someone at home in Haight-Ashbury might seem out of place in North Beach to the tourist unfamiliar with the potpourri of people, but those seemingly out of place dreadlocked strollers are still the character of the larger city, still part of the richness, just as Mr. Agreeable’s multitude of characters lends to the replete total of the collection.
Like San Francisco, this collection’s not all gloom, not all overcast and fog. As much as these stories reminded me of being amongst the people of San Francisco, I found it appropriate that Mr. Agreeable not only ended with a story set in San Francisco, “Shallow Water,” but also with the warmth that the Bay invokes (though once more Mr. Nesset offers an extreme circumstance; this time a beached whale.) And Mr. Nesset offers a glimpse into new love, early love and it’s a nice compliment to a motif from the title story, “Mr. Agreeable”—“…even this was foreseen in a way, if not quite clearly foreseeable.” That is, a quiet ending was appropriate, and, to his credit, expected. With so many of the characters out of touch, out of sorts, out of whack, the final story offers a comforting deep breath.
My Catalan friend made at least one new friend, which I’m aware of, by shouting down at strangers, and there’s at least one story, strong as they all are, that will be a favorite to the interested reader. As we never knew who was passing beneath our window so is it difficult to say exactly which story one person or another might be most intrigued by, but this is a collection worth searching through to find that one story that shouts back from the street.
Adolfo Mejia is a Southern California native. He is currently at work on his second novel, Dinner of Saints, set in the border city of Mexicali.