Elizabeth Gilbert


(Reviewed by Kirstin Merrihew DEC 24, 2007)

"...catnip and kryptonite to me."

The words above -- "...catnip and kryptonite to me" -- are indeed those of Elizabeth Gilbert. But she didn't write them in Pilgrims. They originate in the passionate Eat, Pray, Love, her 2006 runaway bestseller about her year of pilgrimages to Italy, India, and Bali. But that catchy phrase dandily encapsulates her 1997 short story collection which beckons irresistibly in places and feeds the urge to flee in others.

Eat, Pray, Love is Gilbert's therapy, her real life attempt to right herself after divorce leaves her virtually penniless and emotionally undone. This travelogue/spiritual odyssey contains Gilbert in every sentence. Quite the opposite is true of the dozen fictions of Pilgrims. Gilbert disappears with consummate craft and her creations come alive on the stage of the page. Most short stories scrabble to deliver a tight plot, and, due to space, often have to settle for characterization as a sweetener. But these stories feature characters as the main course, and plot is often secondary, sometimes a mere spoonful of seasoning. Essentially, it's as if the author is taking us on a people watching tour. We drop in and see a slice of life -- usually working class people who live close to the economic edge and are pretty coarse in thought and deed.

For instance, in "Alice to the East," past-his-prime widower Roy gives seventeen-year-old Pete and his older sister, Alice, a ride into town (Verona, North Dakota) when their car breaks down. Alice talks with magpie effusion, telling Roy they are on their way to Florida so she can go to nursing school. She asks about him, but mainly fills air with chatter about her dumb brothers, especially the oldest one, a soldier in Germany who got duped by a girl's sperm-by-mail pregnancy scam. When Roy takes them to a bar for some chow, a customer, Artie, harasses Alice, baiting her, then calling her a "wise-ass." That gets a protective rise out of Pete, anda scuffle ensues. When Pete is nearly knocked unconscious Roy steps in. Soon the three are back in Roy's car. Alice apologizes for the trouble and chatters on again. Roy is suddenly weary, and the Florence Nightingale in the garrulous girl acts. Alice reaches for the wheel and steers from the passenger side. " 'It's okay,' " she says.

"Pilgrims," "Elk Talk," "Bird Shot," "The Many Things That Denny Brown Did Not Know (Age Fifteen)," and other stories, have a similar blue collar, basic folk feel to them. Each story infuses readers with the sense of the characters' rote, downtrodden lives,but also with a feeling that there has been evolution, quiet as it may be, in those lives. Arguably, "At the Bronx Terminal Vegetable Market" weighs in with the most complex and fascinating character study. Dock laborer Jimmy Moran, laid off for months to recuperate from back surgery, returns to his old haunts to stump for the union local presidency and ready himself to return to work. As he makes the rounds and meets old pals and nemeses, the high hopes he had for a triumphant next phase at the produce distribution hub begin to fade out. An ominous fated sense of doom descends. Jimmy might be the vegetable market's Willy Loman.

Several stories distinguish themselves in singular ways. "The Famous Torn and Restored Lit Cigarette Trick" tells a totally unpredictable, bohemian yarn about a Hungarian American immigrant who, for a while, prospers as owner of a dinner club featuring magic shows. But all is shattered when he murders, with a meat mallet, one of his magicians and a kitchen employee in his own restaurant. Granted parole years later, he goes to live with his daughter and another magician friend. Soon trouble over a beloved rabbit's mysterious disappearance threatens the old man's freedom again. While a marvel of cleverness, "Trick" exudes a curious tension of foreignness not common to the previous stories mentioned, and it is bizarrely nutty.

"Come and Fetch These Stupid Kids" also stands tall and alone. It begins innocuously enough following a group of twenty-somethings who live their lives aimlessly. Unfortunately, going with the flow -- in this case taking a night swim in the ocean -- becomes a matter of life and death. This piece gets under the skin. It may well be the story remembered longest.

Pilgrims concludes with "The Finest Wife," about a school bus driver who has loved men all her long life. One day, she finds herself driving her route, but picking up paramours, not kids. It's a dreamy tribute, a bit of gentle fantasy, marking a huge milestone for the woman. After the toughness of most of the collection, this sentimental conclusion is an endearing change of pace.

Gilbert's talent as author of both nonfiction (Eat, Pray, Love) and fiction (Pilgrims) shines like a lighthouse beacon. Women will be more partial to Eat than men due to her lengthy laments about her failed marriage and subsequent love life...or lack thereof. Pilgrims though just might appeal more to the XY crowd; the sinewy, frontier quality is masculine. However, sensitivity, in delicate balance, infuses this collection too.

Who can resist the "catnip" of this luscious scene: "On this night, he walked out of Grafton Brothers, eating Haitian mangos the Puerto Rican way. First he massaged and squeezed the mango with his thumbs until the flesh was soft and pulpy beneath the skin. He worked the fruit with his thumbs until it was the consistency of jelly. Then he bit a small hole in the top and sucked out the insides. Sweet like coconut. Foreign-tasting, but nice."

Encounter this "catnip" -- and the"kryptonite" --waiting for you in Pilgrims.
  • Amazon readers rating: from 20 reviews

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About the Author:

Elizabeth GilbertElizabeth Gilbert was bornin Connecticut in 1969 and was raised on a small family Christmas Tree Farm. She went to college in New York City in the early 1990’s, and spent the years after college traveling around the country and the world, working odd jobs, writing short stories and essentially creating what she has referred to as her own MFA program. Her first book of short stories, Pilgrims, was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award.

Since that time, Gilbert has published consistently and always to high praise. In addition to writing books, Elizabeth has worked steadily as a journalist. Throughout much of the 1990’s she was on staff at SPIN Magazine, where – with humor and pathos – she chronicled diverse individuals and subcultures. In 1999, Elizabeth began working for GQ magazine, where her profiles of extraordinary men – from singers Hank Williams III and Tom Waits to quadriplegic athlete Jim Maclaren – earned her three National Magazine Award Nominations, as well as repeated appearances in the “Best American” magazine writing anthologies. She has also written for The New York Times Magazine, REal Simple, Allure, Travel and Leisure and O, the Oprah Magazine.

Much of her writing has been optioned by Hollywood. Her GQ memoir about her bartending years became the Disney movie "Coyote Ugly."

She currently lives in New Jersey.

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