“Wisniewski shows a shrewd hand with sparkling dialogue,” said Publishers Weekly of All Weekend with the Lights On, Mark Wisniewski’s 2001 collection of short fiction, and while this assessment is certainly true, Wisniewski’s deeply engaging prose style also owes much to the author's incisive wit and subtle irony. Combining the best of literary forebears Twain and Hemingway, Wisniewski’s narration offers a fine mix of arresting humor and keen lucidity, and generously so in his second novel, Show Up, Look Good (Gival Press, 2011).
Including fiction that landed a Pushcart Prize, Show Up, Look Good is narrated by protagonist Michelle, who charms us with her utter frankness. For example, all in one whack, Michelle speaks of a prospective Manhattan landlord with a non-negotiable rental agreement (Michelle must bathe her nightly) and alludes to her former insatiable boyfriend: “For starters, she disrobed immediately, which was slightly off-putting. I’m not a prude, but think about it: one minute we’re strangers, and two bagel chunks later, I see her pubic hair—all because a tree surgeon penetrated a portable vagina delivered by third class mail.” While most prose stylists today—in the wake of Twain, Hemingway, and Carver—have gone lean, certainly not every fiction writer writes the same. What distinguishes Wisniewski from many is the unexpected yet apt word choices along with the comic, jolting juxtaposition of detail. His overall tone in this long-awaited novel—as in his other fictions that have won the Pushcart Prize, a Tobias Wolff Award, and inclusion in the 2008 Best American Short Stories volume edited by Salman Rushdie—is an insightful mix of the dead serious and deadpan comic.
Wisniewski’s style grows organically out of a compelling delineation of character. In much of his fiction, protagonists are semi-befuddled by a bizarre world, replete with undertows and pits, but they are long-suffering and hopeful, and, if innocent, they are also learners—and what they learn about the world is transformative. Michelle, recently dumped by her boorish boyfriend for “think[ing] too much,” is ripe for change, for taking charge of her own life. Though at times she tends to obsess over her ex-boyfriend’s negative assessment of her, the reader cannot help but believe that in a world spring-loaded with traps of various kinds, one might be wise to veer too much toward intellectualization than not enough. In the course of the novel, Michelle makes the archetypal journey from innocence to experience—and the classic American journey from the Midwest to the East, from provincialism to culture and cosmopolitanism, from Kankakee, Illinois, to Manhattan, the Big Apple. Michelle’s exposure to New York life certainly makes her more world-wise, more skeptical, so that late in the novel she can’t help but deride T-shirts that proclaim “I love NY.” The Valentine heart (in this T-shirt’s lexicon) is provocative symbolism indeed, as the heart of New York is proven to be a corrupt one, a snare for the unwary, for the lover with more heart than head.
The LA Times favorably compared Wisniewski’s first novel, Confessions of a Polish Used Car Salesman, to Huckleberry Finn—and one certainly notes a Huck Finn kind of persona in Michelle: rootless (no mother, insensitive father), a blend of innocence and naiveté conjoined with a strong desire to make empirical sense of a puzzling world. In New York, Michelle is quickly drawn into a series of thorny and compromising situations, with Wisniewski’s comic panorama of oddball characters. Besides her first Manhattan landlord, there’s a married couple from Queens with a quirky combo of names—Frank and Francine—who offer Michelle a place to stay when she loses a battle of egos with roommates in her second apartment arrangement, but Frank and Francine try to coerce Michelle into three-partner sex. If Frank and Francine represent the seamy side of the city, scam artist and grocery store owner Carmen moves us into even darker terrain. Carmen, Michelle’s boss, proves to be such a bully that Michelle is forced to quit, then resort to trusting former Yankee baseball star Ernest Coolridge, now a building super. If Ernest once made it in the big time, today he’s physically broken, a cancer survivor with his jawbone and one shoulder missing, mute, penning messages on paper. Yet Ernest, we soon discover, is morally tainted; he offers Michelle a rent-free apartment in Manhattan, as long as she makes herself scarce when a john needs the space for time with a prostitute. Financially bottomed out, Michelle rationalizes and accepts, and when she witnesses a crime against one of the young prostitutes, her life becomes much more complicated—and scary. It appears that the skeptics back in Kankakee might well be right about a prediction they made when Michelle left home: that she’d never make it in New York. If Manhattan was once Michelle’s green light, her image of the American Dream, she has by novel’s end discovered in the city a future she couldn’t have imagined at the outset.
That said, it would be a mistake to see Michelle as pure innocence. She’s willing to play the system to her advantage. Early on, she scalps Letterman tickets, with a clever scheme of having a bunch of guest tickets mailed to her friends and relatives, confident that no one will want them and will therefore mail them to her as she requests. She discovers Mercury dimes in the cash register at Carmen’s and plans on exchanging her own cash for them. Still, we cannot help but admire her as she tries to make a go of oil painting with little chance of earning recognition by the larger world, much less making a living at it. Compared to some she meets in New York, her sins seem venial.
What we have to applaud Wisniewski for is the way that both setting and protagonist, the two richly delineated in all their singularity, nonetheless point to the universal. New York could be any city, any place, and Michelle could be any person—the archetypal seeker trying desperately to find her place in the world. If the city seems utterly immense, alien, daunting, and in fact is, as Dreiser’s work clearly illustrates, smallness doesn’t necessarily mean connection and comfort, or a sense of well-being. Wisniewski’s tragicomedy scintillates with a troupe of characters that might call to mind a medieval parade of the vices. But then, that’s the world, large or small, isn’t it? If we look closely enough?
Jack Smith is author of the 2008 novel Hog to Hog (Texas Review Press), winner of the George Garrett Fiction Prize. His reviews and stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines.