Modern Manners for Your Inner Demons

By Tara Laskowski


Matter Press
October 2012

Reviewed by LW Compton


Imagine if the instruction manual for your Ikea chair had been written by someone with a bad attitude who is privy to the intimate details of your personal life. The stories in Tara Laskowski's Modern Manners for Your Inner Demons are not told by the kind of people interested in turning lemons into lemonade. This slender little book with a cartoony cover drawing of the devil bowing to kiss the hand of a ladylike character promises sarcasm and plenty of it. I know these cynical narrators and I like them. If you can't say anything nice, come sit next to me. 

The distance between the narrator of each etiquette lesson and the stressed out receiver of that lesson is approximately the same as what lies between the left side of the brain and the right. It is the person receiving the instructions who emerges as a fully formed character by the end of the story. The anxiety-ridden instructees of Laskowski's stories tap dance their way through various awkward situations ranging from adultery to dementia. It's fun to laugh at them, but by the end of each story, you can't quite remember why you thought they were so dumb in the first place; these characters have problems and deal with their problems with dignity. Each of these stories start out in a sarcastic vein, yet the problems they address are heartbreaking, and each and every one of them realizes a protagonist, fully formed, with a past, a  present, and a future.

In "The Etiquette of Obesity" the narrator starts out—as all the stories do—with that jokey imperative voice:

It is best to plan ahead. You can say, "I will order a salad." But then you may get there and find the salads have mushrooms on them. Then you will want a cheese steak with grilled onions and peppers and those amazing steak fries the restaurant has. Order it, but swear to yourself you will stop at half, you will only eat just a few of those fries.

The promise to eat only a few fries is embarrassingly familiar. There's authenticity here, and it doesn't take long for the man being addressed  to engage the reader's sympathy. This obese fellow is shunned by the world and he longs for companionship. He's vulnerable.  Even though the reader is in on the joke from the beginning, it gets more and more difficult to laugh at him. By the end, a lovely uplifting bit of prose sneaks in and when it's over, you're left blinking your eyes and sucking in your breath. How to pull off a sweet ending after so much sarcasm? Like this:

Offer her one of your donuts if you still have some left, and when she looks at you, really looks at you for the first time, breathe out, your chest expanding, and watch in amazement as she leans in, not out, as she brushes a bit of white powder from your lips and smiles.

"The Etiquette of Eloping" is provided for a none-of-the-above kind of girl who wears a non-diamond engagement ring and wants to skip the storybook wedding and elope to Las Vegas. It's a riff about the groom's annoying parents and their friends. It transforms from a story about the girl who doesn't want the wedding that's expected of her into a story about the girl who loves her daddy, about a celebration of a sacred event and the depth of emotion attached to an event of this stature. The story ends in a poignant place: a father-daughter dance in the bride's father's kitchen, dishrag slung over his shoulder.

Perhaps, the most touching story in the book, "The Etiquette of Infertility," addresses the pain faced by a woman who longs to be pregnant and suffers insensitive relatives and hair dressers and the humiliation of children's birthday parties. She tries to playfully navigate a marriage now fraught with the pressures of infertility. The section of "Statistics and Factoids" would be funnier were it not so bizarrely believable: "98% of women who are addicted to crack will get pregnant the first time they have unprotected sex."

In a flood of language, the final paragraph recounts the would-be mother's mournful recall of a sexual encounter with her husband in the days when a menstrual period was a gift:

Later you would replay it all in your head, the torn condom, the praying, panicking, worrying while you waited for It, willing It to come, and then finally when It did come, that delirious love for life, the shots of tequila, you and he dancing late in a bar, relieved your mistake hadn't cost you anything. But there in that moment that day, while the mud pooled around your back and your future husband hovered above you panting, thrusting, you let it all expand inside you, you let the rain patter all over your face and the cold wind goosebump your arms and you wondered, crazily, delightedly, what the odds were of getting struck by lightning.

These endings land softly and with subtlety. At the beginning of each story, the reader starts out in an intellectually superior position to the main character. Somewhere along the way there is an astonishing reversal. In the best tradition of story: the reader becomes invested in each of these stories only to find that the story she thought she was reading was not the story the writer has told at all.