David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Elizabeth Tallent’s Honey

Elizabeth Tallent's 'Honey'This book review was originally published in the Baltimore City Paper on February 9, 1994.

“It gets James out of bed in the barely-there light,” Elizabeth Tallent writes at the beginning of the story “James Was Here,” the last (and best) in her new collection, Honey. “He’s going to carry a gun.”

Like most of the characters in Honey, James has recently been divorced and found himself stranded in the territory of purposelessness. When the logic of job, home, and family crumbles, why not carry a gun, even if you have no plans to use it? The remarkable thing, James muses when he slides the .32 into his jacket pocket, is that he can bury away so much potential horror where it’s virtually undetectable. “James gets closer to the closet-door mirror, wondering if this can be true, that someone (that he) can carry a gun and not have it scream gun!” Tallent writes. “The jacket’s hang is handsome with innocence.”

What a perfect metaphor for Elizabeth Tallent’s third short story collection, a book filled with insecure men, even more insecure women, and the children that alternately solder them together and blast them apart. Honey is a book devoted to those moments that we spend teetering on the border between sanity and insanity, attempting to appear firm and decisive while inwardly pondering the ultimate leap into the unknown.

With her intricate, word-rich prose and meticulous attention to detail, Tallent has proven herself an expert at spelunking the interior caverns of emotion that we usually mark off-limits to outsiders. She knows intimately what few people will admit: that human behavior is highly dependent on unpredictable, irrational emotion.

The men and women of Honey often find themselves in the midst of actions they can’t explain, actions that spring from some recessed portion of the mind that remains dormant until rationality has spun itself into a dead end. In “Prowler,” for instance, protagonist Dennis enters his ex-wife’s house unbidden, while the narrator tells us that “He’s stymied by the very fact that he’s an intruder. An intruder is an unreasonable thing to be.” Jenny, the protagonist of “Kid Gentle,” decides to throw her energy into buying a horse, thinking for some reason that it will make up for her miscarriage. And in “Black Dress,” an expectant mother places her fragile sense of continuity on a single high-heeled shoe left underneath her bedroom chair.

The key word for Elizabeth Tallent’s fretted and forlorn characters is stability. Screeching back and forth between relationships like an automobile out of control, these men and women are isolated from comforting companionship and frequently even denied the solace of comprehending their own actions. Even love is an untrustworthy emotion that often as not leads to strange, hazardous places.

The nine stories that comprise Honey aren’t comforting. Instead, they resonate on dark and profound levels of truth that often remain unspoken.

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