Ellen Slezak

"Last Year's Jesus: a novella and nine stories"

(Reviewed by Shannon Bloomstran APR 12, 2002)

Last Years' Jesus by Ellen Slezak
Here in St. Louis, we used to have a restaurant that would routinely serve tasting menus organized around a particular theme. They were particularly known for their "wild game dinners," which my husband and I sampled on several occasions. The chef incorporated some kind of wild game into each course; wild boar carpaccio appetizers, elk medallions as the entrée, even a "side dish" of sauteed water beetle on brioche, although only my husband sampled that course. Although each course was small, by the end of the dinner one couldn't help but think, "Wow, I just ate a lot of wild game." Such is the case with Last Year's Jesus, a collection of nine short stories and one novella. While only two are directly linked, the stories all share the same setting as well as an overwhelming sense of sadness. After reading the last story, I couldn't help but think "Wow, that was a lot of sadness." One of the characters even says, "...my body craved a dose of daily gloom just as surely as it needed fruits and vegetables."

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Sadness and how the different characters deal with it form the basis for most of the plots in Last Year's Jesus. Many also deal in some way with the characters' religion, specifically Roman Catholicism. In the title story, a young college student falls in to a local church's Passion Play, the recreation of the last days of Jesus and in the space of a few minutes falls desperately in love with the man who played Jesus in last year's production. Slezak uses the story to illustrate the young girl's ambivalence to the church. Several of the other stories confront the issue of aging and she doesn't paint a pretty picture. In "Tomato Watch," a young unmarried pregnant woman cares for her aging and demented grandfather whose days consist of tending to his tomato garden. In "The Geese at Mayville," a young man cares for his elderly neighbor in return for the use of a pickup. The neighbor, also suffering from some sort of dementia, may or may not be poisoning migrating geese. Most of the plots are microscopic, they concentrate on the immediate and seemingly mundane lives of the characters. Since the longest, the novella called "Head, Heart, Legs, or Arms," clocks in at just 50 pages, Slezak cannot afford the luxury of a leisurely pace. Several of the stories end abruptly, giving quite a jolt to the reader.

The stories all take place in, or have some connection to Detroit as the aging city plays a vital role in many of the stories. In "Here in Car City," she describes a city block, "three recent burnouts that were still standing and needed razing or least a good board-up... abandoned long enough so that grass was growing in between the remains of windows and walls..." She clearly loves the city, though, even down to the street names. In "Settled" a character has recently moved to a faceless suburb and is regretting her decision. "Charlevoix - Sylvia sighed a little thinking about it - such a beautiful street name. Detroit had lots of others like it - Lafayette, Kercheval, Grand Boulevard . . .She couldn't get used to living on Bunnert Street in Warren, just four miles north of the Detroit city limits, and traveling up and down streets like Schoenherr, Hoover, and Groesbeck. Those street names caught like phlegm in her throat." Slezak even loves the hopelessness of Detroit's blue collar work force "especially when the lotto jackpot went over twenty million and she could walk in [to a liquor store] . . .see a long line of hope on display, desperation too, all for the price of a Coke."

Slezak plays with juxtaposition in that while many of her elderly characters are alive and thriving, at least physically, she explores the death of young children in three of the stories. She does not exploit the deaths, nor does she force readers through an emotional wringer as the stories are told from siblings' point of view. In the most poignant example, the novella "Head, Heart, Legs, or Arms," Mona, a young girl chronicles her experiences during the summer of 1967 during which her younger sister is slowly dying. Mona's mother and father virtually abandon her in order to care for their youngest daughter. Death causes actual parental abandonment in "By Heart," where a young boy is forced to live with his father and witchy stepmother after the death of his younger sister. In "Patch," the death of her husband causes a profound depression and financial hardship on his wife and daughter. In this story particularly, Slezak shows her gift of description. She describes suburban mothers at ice skating lessons, "Sitting together in the bleachers, carefully groomed in soft-colored shirts and socks that matched, chattering about minutiae, they looked like eggs at Easter, pastel-colored and bottom heavy." The children, the live ones anyway, are the wisest characters in the stories, adults are distracted, disillusioned, or demented.

Slezak is a gifted story teller. She lets the characters speak for themselves and wisely resists the impulse to become maudlin. The stories are beautiful and emotionally wrenching without a hint of manipulation. It's just that after reading the entire set, I felt that I desperately needed some sunshine, flowers, heck I even thought about watching Barney. I felt like I'd had more than a daily dose of gloom.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 4 reviews

Read an excerpt from Last Year's Jesus at MostlyFiction.com

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About the Author:

Ellen Slezak's short fiction has been published in more than a dozen literary journals, including American Literary Review, ZYZZYVA, Crab Orchard Review, and Green Mountains Review. She was a finalist in the Iowa Short Fiction Awards, a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and has twice been awarded Illinois Arts Council grants for fiction writing.

Born and raised in Detroit, she now lives in Los Angeles.

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