Bummer and Other Stories by Janice Shapiro

bummerIn screenwriter Janice Shapiro’s collection of short stories Bummer and Other Stories, women and girls face life’s disappointments and their very own failings. In other words, these ladies’ lives are just one bummer after another.

Bummer starts out strong with its opening story called “Bummer.” It’s the 1970s and the punk rock scene has made it to America. Alison finds herself pregnant and about to marry her boyfriend in Las Vegas. She and her betrothed bonded over their local punk scene, so of course, they are meant to be.

Or are they? Sadly, Alison’s mohawked Romeo turns out to be a dud and they break up before they can say their “I dos.” Soon after that unfortunate episode, desperate Alison hooks up with a Latino high roller who pays her for a night in the sack. Are these misfortunes a foreshadowing of Alison’s future? Struggling as a single mom and being mistaken for being a hooker? We can only guess and hope Alison gets it together.

In the following story, “1966,” a young girl is becoming aware of the world around her, and it’s not very pretty. Not only does her mom look bad in bathing suits, life as a housewife isn’t always sunshine and daisies. Her babysitter states she wishes she had never been born. Also, the shocking murder of several student nurses in Chicago by one Richard Speck has the nation both riveted and horrified. Is this what women can look forward to, stifling domesticity at best and brutal murder at worst?

Other stories follow the same depressing meme. Women’s lives are a collection of crappy decisions, regrettable mistakes, disenchantment and desperation, low self-esteem and other tales of woe. In “Maternity” the protagonist just has an inkling she’s going to fail and be a crappy mother. In “Night and Day” a Hollywood talent agent has focused so much on her career, she wonders if she has neglected her personal life too much, especially her love life. She soon realizes she has, but instead of being upset, she realizes she just doesn’t care. In “Ennui” one woman’s collection of lovers is nothing to brag about, but she can’t help but make the same bad decision after another when it comes to relationships. And in “Death and Disaster” one woman accidentally kills her neighbor’s pet bird.

These women are losing their men, losing their looks, losing their dignity and losing their grip. And despite Shapiro’s strong skills as a writer, Bummer is way too repetitive. After a while, I felt as if I was reading about the same character at different times in her life. And I also wished for some ray of hope for these characters, some light at the end of a very long, dismal tunnel. I guess with a name like Bummer, I shouldn’t hold out for a happy ending.

Two stories do stand out, one bad, the other good. In the fantasy-like “Small” a middle-aged woman looks back at her younger self when her roommates were seven men of short stature who ran a pot farm. Based on “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” the story “Small” is a fractured fairy tale that should have worked but falls rather short (sorry). Shapiro can write straight fiction, but should leave the fantasy type writing to someone more versed in the genre like Francesca Lia Block.

However, “The Old Bean” does work. In Bummer’s final story, a middle-aged woman finds herself working at a local coffee shop with workers who are half her age and are fully disrespectful. She is also dealing with a husband who is working overseas and daughter who doesn’t want to talk to her. There is one awkward bright spot, a cute rocker co-worker, who may be young enough to be her son, but actually flirts with her in his own clumsy way. The protagonist of “Old Bean” is both weirded out and somewhat flattered by this young man’s attention. She also has a bit more humor and pluck than the other women of Bummer, and she shows some gumption when she tells her millennial co-workers that if a chair is available during the shop’s down time—it’s hers! She’s got some tired, middle-aged feet that need some rest.

Bummer starts out strong and ends strong. It’s the middle that is a bit of a slog to get through. I kind of wished Shapiro would have combined the opening and closing stories into a novel, showing the same character in her messed up early years and then later, in her still messed up middle-aged years. Perhaps that would have made a much stronger and more interesting read.

In the end, Bummer is the perfect title for a less than perfect book.