“Walk for Mankind,” the novella that opens the collection, is set on the Stanford campus, where Packer grew up, the daughter of two professors (her brother George also became a writer). It’s September 1972, the first week of eighth grade. Sasha Horowitz has just moved to faculty housing from New Haven. Richard Appleby and his history professor father are adjusting to life on their own after his mother has moved across the Bay to Oakland to work among the disadvantaged
Richard is preternaturally observant. Sasha, he notes, has “a little of each parent in her… plus something essential and not altogether pleasant that was entirely hers, like a back note of pepper in a rich chocolate dessert. It was a quality that made her–that gave her permission to–insist on what she wanted.” While raising money for a fundraising walk around Palo Alto, the precocious Sasha smokes her first joint and gets involved with a 26-year-old pot dealer named Cal. Richard is later titillated by a glimpse of her nipple–”the color of an underripe strawberry” –and gobsmacked by a single kiss.
At fifty, the vantage point from which he narrates “Walk for Mankind,” Richard lingers tenderly on every subtle shift in that momentous year, obviously still fascinated by this early love. “How do people do it, pry themselves from their pasts?” he asks.
As in Packer’s novel Songs Without Words, family tragedy supplies the core of several of these stories. “Her Firstborn” mines the emotional reactions of an expectant father to his wife’s pregnancy, his anticipation made poignant by the fact that her first child, from another marriage, died at five months.
“Molten” also pursues a parent’s loss, but digs deeper. The mother of a teenager who has been killed in an accident secretly spends her days in his room listening to his music–icons of indie rock such as the Pixies and Superchunk–and through this sonic connection Packer makes her inconsolable grief palpable. The song that gives this collection its title is, Packer writes, “the cry of a spurned lover.” But there is no word like “widow” to convey “the exact shape of what is gone.”
These dramatic episodes aside, the most powerful moments in Packer’s tales detonate more quietly. Take the following exchange from the final story, “Things Said or Done,” which revisits Sasha 35 years after “Walk for Mankind.”
Sasha is divorced, and the default caretaker of her cranky father (her mother left him when Sasha was sixteen). She has traveled with him from his home in Connecticut to her middle-aged younger brother’s wedding in Berkeley. “By the way….I’m probably dying,” her father announces.
Sasha attempts an understanding smile. “I am sympathetic–somewhat, and more for the hypochondria than for whatever ails him–but the algebra of our relationship means it’s hard for me to offer compassion when that’s so clearly what he wants.”
Packer captures a lifetime of repercussions in that coolly calibrated response.