What Was What, What Wasn’t by Jonas Ribb contains thirteen startling stories that bear witness to the lives of Americans in our time.
In “Indecision,” a tale that reflects Ribb’s profound understanding of contemporary reality, an adulterous chiropodist realizes that the Midwestern college town in which he has lived all his life is in fact made out of marzipan.
“A Story of Domestic Life” has basically the same plot, except that this time the town turns out to be made of chocolate malt.
In “Oklahoma Dreaming,” nothing happens at all.
“Marzipan Aardvark” shows the unexpected gift of a marzipan aardvark forcing a New York couple to confront their incompatibility. The wife claims to be allergic to marzipan, while the husband, refusing to believe her, drags her to the Spanish hill city of Toledo, famous for its marzipan and its swords, and beheads her. These events are memorably portrayed through the eyes of some Cuban adolescents who are discovering their burgeoning sexuality.
In the widely anthologized “Who Will Navigate?” a man who may or may not be in Utah agonizes over his inability to forget the past.
“Stuck in Traffic,” short-listed for Best American Stories Ending With Unexpected Poolside Epiphanies 2004, is a marvel of nuance in which a man becomes aware that his dog is involved with a cat. The story ends with an unexpected poolside epiphany.
In “Losing My Car Keys,” a frustrated librarian who harbors an unspeakable secret makes a date with a cop who harbors a different secret, or perhaps the same one, we never find out, because instead of showing up they both stay home and watch “Desperate Housewives.”
“Maybe You Had To Be There” describes a man crossing a Midwestern street who sees a woman coming towards him and briefly thinks he recognizes her.
In “In The Oven,” a depressed woman tries to cheer herself up by baking some cookies.
As “What I Knew About the Hudsons” unfolds, the problems in the Hudsons’ marriage are deftly symbolized by a succession of aardvarks fired into their house by the couple’s neighbor Hank, a plain-spoken taxidermist who at the story’s beautifully wrought conclusion states his hard-won wisdom, “Some people just plain needs aardvarks thrown at ’em.”
With his next story, Ribb changes the tone of the whole collection. Controlled in its narration, spare and almost brutal in its honesty, encompassing within the perfection of its form the death and resurrection of a Siamese kitten, “Messiah Kitty” is not a story to read late at night if you’ve ever crucified a cat.
The remaining stories in the collection, penned in the last stages of Ribb’s long personal battle with alcoholism and published here for the first time, show us characters living with the aftereffects of war and repression. For example, in “Mrs. Slocum’s Pussy” a baffled undercover al Qaeda operative struggles to comprehend endless reruns of Are You Being Served?
And resolutely examined in the unnerving title novella “What Was What, Was Wasn’t” is the gradual disintegration of a marriage while both spouses are stuck in traffic someplace else. There’s also an adolescent in the mix, whose sexuality seems about to burgeon until Hank deep-sixes him with a frozen pangolin.
Piecing apart his characters’ pretensions with affection and frankness, in prose that is both luminescent and lush, Ribb is the writer to turn to any time you feel the need to wrestle with a sense of inconsolable loss. Obscure without ever being abstruse, Ribb transports us to a world peopled with normal men and women who’re struggling to understand what’s going on…or, as in the case of “Oklahoma Dreaming,” what’s not going on.