By Gage Saylor JERKS by Sara Lippmann
Mason Jar Press, 2022
The women and girls in JERKS are, you guessed it: jerks. Or, at least, they’re made to feel as such by the men and women around them, by society at large. These women are treated as the problem because they burst with desire, fulfilled and unfulfilled, realized and unrealized. Sara Lippmann’s JERKS questions the role of women constrained by flawed relationships and the burdens of motherhood. They’re obliged to sacrifice their own happiness in service of the men and children (and the man-children) in their lives. JERKS is a captivating short story collection that never overstays its welcome, each story a quick, painful uppercut that dazes, dizzies, shakes loose expectations about what women are “supposed” to do and who they’re “supposed” to be.
In the title story, a woman living in Brooklyn is co-opted into her husband’s project: homemade jerky, the latest in a line of artisanal holiday gifts. Her husband is a burgeoning doomsday prepper, and while he’s free to research bomb shelters and ways to live off the grid, she’s foreclosed to the role of happy jerky-making wife. “The world is ending, that’s a certainty, but if I were to say it, it’d be hysteria. Paranoia on me is practicality to him” (19). Like many of the stories in JERKS, the narrator makes a decision that appears rash or ill-advised to those around her, but what is really an act of defiance, a desperate attempt at autonomy, a genuine expression of desire.
Lippmann positions mothers everywhere in JERKS. Some stories are about the mothers themselves. Others are about the daughters the mothers left behind. Mothers are the ones with all the responsibility in these stories, while the fathers, like the doomsday prepper, are free to pursue their desires and dreams. When these women finally decide to do something for themselves, the world often crumbles around them. In “Runner’s Paradise,” a woman decides to start running and her husband, a runner himself, condescends. “It is easy to make fun of my life choices, but everyone is good at something. Mine just happens to be inertia. I make couch potatoes look spry. Despite this, he is careful to say, Do what you want…Adam tousles my hair. I feel like a puppy” (89). Soon, she finds herself happier than ever, having joined a surreal orgy that takes place in a clearing at a nearby park. In “Rabbi Tales,” a woman lusts after her rabbi. In “Charity Case,” a teenage girl who recently lost her mother, lusts after her chorus teacher. No matter the desire, it comes with a consequence.
Sometimes, these consequences are set into motion long before the story starts. Nick, in the story “Let All Restless Creatures Go,” is a nineteen-year-old who began to lose his hair at age eleven, who became a black belt to ward off bullies, isolated from everyone around him on account of his appearance. The story may seem like an outlier within a collection almost exclusively about women with children, women awash in the malaise of a mediocre marriage. But, thematically, “Let All Restless Creatures Go” resonates at the same frequency as the rest of JERKS: isolation, an absent mother, and the creeping dread and helplessness of climate fears. Nick has just enrolled in community college, in a Wetlands Ecology course. He meets a woman in the class, Sahara, who takes Nick out of his shell as they ride together to a terrapin hatchery. The voice here is much the same as in the rest of the collection, a first-person narrator overcome with desire and pain, but no matter how similar the narrators sound, they never overstay their welcome. The collection is a chorus of isolated but connected voices crying out for a way to be seen, to be recognized, to be desired.
JERKS is a collection that speaks for itself. Pluck out almost any line and you easily see the collection in total. “As moms, we watch from the sidelines,” Lippmann writes in “Har-Tru,” which follows a group of mothers who attend their children’s tennis lessons and obsess over a reality tv show about polyamorous couples (10). “If you’re lucky, this could be you,” a recovering addict tells her sister about her yoga instructor job (36). “Your husband says he would want to kill himself too if he had your life” (102). Lippmann’s incisive prose is always two-pronged; it condemns the judgmental men and women who move in step with societal expectations, but it also strikes a staggering blow for her protagonists, guilty of the most innocent of crimes: desire. Before you know it, JERKS is over, and much like Lippmann’s characters, you’re left wanting more, so, so much more.
Gage Saylor was raised in South Carolina. His work has appeared in Passages North, Moon City Review, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. He received his M.F.A. at McNeese State University where he was awarded the Ada C. Vincent Scholarship, the Robert Olen Butler Award for Fiction, and the Paul-Avee Prize. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Fiction at Oklahoma State University.