'Single, Carefree, Mellow,' by Katherine Heiny
In the pantheon of very bad ideas, agreeing to meet your lover’s wife for a drink would seem to fall somewhere between sticking a fork in a toaster and walking blindfolded into traffic. And yet Sasha, the twentysomething protagonist of Single, Carefree, Mellow’s opening story, “The Dive Bar,” decides to put on her favorite earrings and do exactly that. The way she sees it, “Life is full of good things—buttered toast, cold beer, compelling books, campfires, Christmas lights, expensive lipstick, the smell of vanilla…. But how many things are just flat-out interesting? How many things are so fascinating that you can’t stand not to do them?” For her, and nearly every other female in Katherine Heiny’s debut collection, interesting is paramount. It’s why Sasha subjects herself to a monumentally awkward round of house red and hurled invective with the woman who thinks she’s a home-wrecking slut. And why, apparently, college librarian Maya cheats on her adoring fiancé with her married French boss, and why an unnamed teenage narrator sneaks off to skeevy motel rooms with her history teacher.
If you’re sensing a theme already, you’re not wrong. Nearly all of Single’s stories involve sex in some illicit form: part-time mistresses, adulterous housewives, two-timing brides. It’s not that the relationships they’re in are particularly fraught or unfulfilling. In fact, their boyfriends and husbands, as much as we’re allowed to know them, are paragons of masculine virtue, patient and kind and affectionate almost to a fault. And that’s the book’s biggest flaw. Heiny is an acute observer of human behavior with a tart, deadpan wit; Single has already earned comparisons to Melissa Bank’s 1999 breakout The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, and advance praise from arbiter-of-everything Lena Dunham. But as a writer, Heiny doesn’t seem particularly interested in the hows or whys of her characters’ choices. They stray because they can, and largely without consequences. At first that point of view feels refreshingly liberated and free of judgment. Eleven stories in, it’s numbing. Still, Single, Carefree, Mellow is a lot like the women who populate it: smart and sexy and a little bit ruthless—but for a few hours, pretty good fun. B+