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A Respite From Cynicism

Tue, 02/07/2023 - 07:41
John McCaffrey
Kelly Genuardi

“Automatically Hip”
John McCaffrey
Vine Leaves Press, $14.99

First of all, what a great title. It rolls off the tongue with natural syncopation — easy does it — stylish but not affected. The cool lilt of the phrase is an ace in the hole, a flush of perfection. Also the title of the first story in the volume, "automatically hip" is a phrase plucked for the purpose from John McCaffrey's jazzy line of dialogue attributed to a fictionalized Thelonious Monk. Very hard-working, yet relaxed and knowing, the title sets the stage for a book of modest moments, brief delves into the lives of an array of characters living life as they find it.

This slim volume is fetchingly published by Vine Leaves Press, an independent publishing outfit that has an appreciation for short forms: They bring out collections of short fiction and collections of vignettes, and run a project called 50 Give or Take, which sends very brief stories to subscribers via email. For fans of Mr. McCaffrey's previous short-story collections and connoisseurs of brevity new to his work, the 14 pieces in "Automatically Hip," some only two pages in length, will deliver a sweet take on the short form. 

Mr. McCaffrey's voice is suffused with an anecdotal, folksy quality. There's a sense of easy intimacy here — pull up a chair, have a listen. With the exception of his fictionalized jazz legend Thelonious Monk, his characters are regular people doing unremarkable things. Yet they encounter small twists in the fabric of life, ripples of the unusual, incidents that hang suspended and leave the reader to linger and think: A man who declares he's "too old to be baited by reverse psychology" is nonetheless taken in; a man in a cafe is mysteriously visited by another man who insists that an imaginary friend will be just the thing to help him navigate life.

Mr. McCaffrey's characters serve as magnifying lenses placed over a moment or the crystallization of a feeling. Not that much happens, there's little drama and nothing shocking, but at the same time, some small element of living is captured: A woman unexpectedly triumphs during a try with the chin-up machine at the gym; a daub of cream cheese on a colleague's tie releases a man from the foibles of harsh self-critical comparison, or maybe, actually, it does not . . . 

The stories are synced with contemporary life and recognizable hallmarks of the early 21st century — therapy, spin class, an Untuckit shirt. Yet these pieces are happily free of any self-conscious photo op, ready-for-film-adaptation posture, and they offer a respite from cynicism. 

There's a sincere, earnest quality at work throughout the volume, which is lifted and fluffed by Mr. McCaffrey's droll sense of situation: An unusual hub for conversation is found at one retired lobsterman's trailer, where anyone can bring wood as an offering and stay for a chat as long and only as long as that item still burns in the wood stove; a man goes on a date with a captivating woman, but only after agreeing to mutual silence for the duration of the experience; a man seeks companionship at a surreal community social event, leaves alienated, but stumbles on an unlikely balm for his loneliness.

Perhaps some of the work might cloy like a too-nice boyfriend you can't indict and just don't stay with long, but most of these pieces land as gentle, oblique constructions that feature modestly offbeat situations and deliver mild observations on quirky facets of the human condition, and they are lovely company. 

The stories don't have morals, no, and not even messages, but they are well paced to simply fulfill themselves. They make good on a plain promise of completion to scale, delivering food for thought, ending at just the right, often ambiguous, moment in their short lives.

That fantastic title, "Automatically Hip," is cast in a wry, self-effacing light. There's really no striving to be hip here, no claims of edgy profundity, but certainly there is a sense of curiosity and a sense that meaning resides in quiet moments and somewhat suspended endings. As Mr. McCaffrey's Thelonious Monk concludes in the title story, "Listen. It's the only way." 

Evan Harris is the author of "The Quit." She lives in East Hampton.

John McCaffrey's previous collection of stories was "What's Wrong With This Picture?" He lives in Wainscott.

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