Come Up and See Me Sometime

Jul 1, 1998 at 12:00 am
Erika Krouse's first collection of short stories, now in paperback, makes great beach reading — especially if you wear a black bathing suit and stub out your cigarettes in the sand. Unlike the husband-hunting, body-image-obsessed single gals of much current popular fiction, Krouse's protagonists don't give a damn what anyone thinks of them.

The collection takes it title from actress Mae West's signature line, and takes its sassy tone from that self-made provocateur as well. The 13 stories are studded with darkly droll lines that, without making much fuss about it, evoke the perils of being a smart woman in these postfeminist times, like this aside from "Impersonators": "When I was young, I had wanted to be the first female president of the United States. When I told my mother I was worried that some other girl would get there first, she had said, 'Don't worry about that. At all. Ever.'"

But Krouse isn't just going for yuks. The most refreshing thing about Come Up is the writer's willingness to paint female protagonists who are neither conventional nor conventionally sympathetic. In "The Husbands," a woman compulsively beds other people's spouses, including her own sister's. "No Universe," about a friend's abortion and subsequent guilt-induced marriage to the father, opens with the baby-phobic lead character unloading on new mothers and maternity leave, "extending indefinitely until they don' t know how to run all the latest computer programs anymore."

For all the hard edges she gives them, Krouse's characters have a raw authenticity that can escalate into deeply felt vulnerability. The writer's economical plotting is like good sleight-of-hand: You don't see the resolutions coming, but when they arrive, they feel strangely logical. "Impersonators" begins with hostile banter between a pair of office temps and winds up with a life-changing romantic epiphany. "Too Big to Float" starts with a woman fearing airplanes and ends with her fearing happiness. When Krouse's tough dames reveal their tender side, they also reveal a writer with soul.

Heather Joslyn writes for Baltimore City Paper, where this feature first appeared. Send comments to [email protected].