Diner Stories: Off the Menu
Edited by Daniel McTaggart
Mountain State Press Inc., Charleston, WV, 25304
Order from Amazon.com
Published in 2015
234 pages, 6” x 9”, Paperback, Full Color, $16.99
Review by John Tipper
In this recently released collection we get many variations of a nation’s cultural icon that fast-food chains almost destroyed. But somehow the family or specialty diner managed to survive. Some of these works are traditional stories in form and theme, whereas many are experimental in content or structure, if not both. The geography covered is impressive: diners in the West, Deep South, Appalachia, Northeast and even two in Paris. A few are non-fiction: memoirs and journals. Taken as an entirety, the book shows how the diner is a meeting place and aesthetic springboard for ideas, politics and spooky characters.
Jason Jack Miller’s journal about being an expat in Paris is sensual, breezy and elucidating. It describes a man’s quest to find himself and his voice as a writer. He wants to follow in the footsteps of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Stein, searching to eat at the cafes they frequented, desiring to feel what they felt. One thinks of Van Gogh’s Night Café of 1888. Susanna Connelly Holstein’s “Love’s Old Sweet Song” is a well-written, poignant tale with a feminist main character. Punkish vampires own and operate one diner in an off-beat story by Michael Mehalek. In “Donovan’s Intuition,” Sarah B. Robinson skillfully explores the outlaw-philosophy and lifestyle of a biker, a recent graduate of the Twelve Step Method for alcoholics. The work is sobering in two senses: the theme and jolt at the end. Theodore Webb’s notable story concerning the Civil Rights Movement is set in an Alabama diner, depicting the effects of a violent sit-in in the 1960s. Two women who had been treated brutally revisit the eatery. Jennifer Dietz Weingardt’s well-made piece about two men secretly diving for treasure in the Ohio River has a great twist when the divers become the hunted.
“All the World’s a Stage: (But the Diner is my Church),” by Joey Madia, is a memoir far-ranging in scope and experience, the writer reflecting on diners from New Jersey to Ohio. Of course, as the title implies, he compares his experiences in them to religious musings. He likes to relate his discussions and memories of them to films and TV shows; for example, Levinson’s Diner and Agent Dale Cooper’s favorite The Double R in Twin Peaks. The diner was a centerpiece in Lynch’s surreal, cult classic. When Madia was in high school, he and his buddies hung out pretending to be punks in films such as Lords of Flatbush and Rumblefish. This work is a fast-paced, thoughtful jaunt.
Jolene Paternoster’s “White Smoke and Mirrors” is stark and focuses on one isolated character muttering to himself on religious issues. The taut prose and alienated theme brings to mind Edward Hopper’s 1942 classic painting of a diner, Nighthawks. A short piece, yet it packs a punch with implication.
Eric Fritzius composed “Flying Lessons over Lunch with Saint Joseph Cooper Tina.” Robert and his son Aaron deliberate on what to order in a Meridian, Mississippi diner. The boy is a big fan of Superman: The Movie and believes humans really can fly if they believe they can. Robert counters this by telling him the only person he was aware of who’d flown was a 17th century monk, Joseph Cooper Tina, and he only did this by levitating during prayer. While eating, they engage in a debate on how much faith it takes to fly. Apparently Robert at one time believed he could, so he jumped off the family roof but just plopped down in the yard. Aaron accuses him of having weak faith. Then the boy brings up the hypnotist they’d seen on TV, where a man on the program had been transformed into a chicken, or at least believed he was a chicken. Furthermore, Aaron talks of Jesus walking on water and contends everybody can do impossible things. He knows Robert had hypnotized a fellow student in college, and the boy wants Dad to prepare him to fly. The upshot is that when they leave the diner, they come upon a telephone booth.
Crime stories such as Garland Steele’s “All Night Diner” that deals with an organized mob and hit on a District Attorney, plus Eliot Parker’s hardboiled story, make you think back to the noir tales of the 1940s and early ‘50s.
This has been only a sample of the twenty-six contributors. A few stories are short enough to qualify as flash fiction.
The collection shows much of the ethos of diners, the psyches of customers, servers, cooks and Americana. Some are basic and crude, but considering the ambiance, one should expect that kind of approach. A few short ones are flat and eschew serious themes. Conventional story structure may be lacking here and there, for the sake of boldness and a reaching toward freshness. Two or three are banal. All and all, however, the reader will come away satisfied with a good read experience because the collection attempts to explore and analyze an American institution.
About the reviewer
John Tipper has reviewed many books for Goodreads, Amazon and for Southern Exposure. He’s been a journalist, working on business, sports and the arts and has completed one POD novel. Living in the Washington DC area, Tipper had a short play produced at Source Theater.
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