I fell madly in love with Love Begins in Winter last summer, and I’m glad to see his first story collection, The Secret Lives of People in Love, which was just released in paper from Harper Perennial. Simon Van Booy can really get under your skin, and I’m glad to see his work gaining a wider audience.
In “Little Birds”, the opening story to this collection, I’m immediately stunned by the urgent voice of our narrator is, he’s turning fifteen years old and has just gotten out of bed in his apartment he shares in Paris with Michel. Over the course of the story we see a vibrant city unfold through his eyes, people on the street, and old couple who he tells us more about than he could possibly know. Van Booy has this incredible talent for blending imagination with reality, in a fearless whimsical voice that is really captivating, but sometimes its annoying, but rightly so, the kid is fifteen. I was horrified at the story of how our narrator came to meet and eventually shack up with Michel. They met on a train, where our narrator is separated from his parents, and they watch the doors of the train close with their son on the inside. The parents scream in agnony, their son is three years old. It’s a strange and vaporous moment, perhaps a story that is just a story, and our narrator is just a street urchin who happens to have a caretaker with a vivid imagination. Or, this is a story that hustlers tell the kids they stole off the street to turn tricks, so that everyone can sleep well at night. We meet the local whores, and bums, as we tour the city and learn more about Michel, who we think we should like, but it turns out he was a bad man before he scooped up our hero. We’re based in the now, McDonalds and Men in Black II, which seem like good things for a kid to do on his birthday, and he looks forward to it, but oddly, Michel who has a job, comes home and has bought him a pair of shoes, and pays for the evenings entertainment in coins collected in a wine bottle. This is just a small sampling of Van Booy and his stories; his voice is so hard to ignore.
Your heart will break when you read the sizzling story “As Much Below As Up Above”, a story that is weird and clunky, even heavy, as it’s structured with such magnificence. Our narrator is a Russian with a great command of the English language, and he’s retelling a story of his own demise while sitting on the beach watching people wade in and out of the ocean. The story leaps off the page as we wander around our hero’s mind as he dreams of his girlfriend Mina, and his former life on a Russian submarine that has meet with a nasty end. We meet his family, his father made doors, which, pardon the pun, opens the story wide, and we get to read some of the stunning writing and reasons why our hero loves the sea. This is subtle reflection, and Van Booy can really devestate with just a few well chosen words, nothing tectonic, but subtle and poignant. We hear about the years in the Russian Navy, how the submarine shudder from the missles it launched, and everything was made easier when Vodka was consumed like water. We finally meet the other sailors on the submarine, and learn that their personal lives are nothing more than currency for Van Booy to thicken the pot with. He will use each person, however minor for a pay off at the end which will make the whole story fall together like a slinky. The fates of all involved are left dangling by Van Booy, while the reader has his breath taken away. I know I’m waxing poetic about this collection, but it is a dynamite and vibrant piece of writing. -JR