Book Review No. 6 – My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers by Fiona Helmsley

Book Review by David S. Atkinson

My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers
by Fiona Helmsley
Paragraph Line, 2015
201 pages, $10.95 ($6.95 Kindle)

The last thing you remember is that incredible party you hosted the night before, but suddenly the Bacchanalia is gone and you feel dirt beneath your bare feet as you stand on cracked linoleum. There’s trash everywhere, beer bottles jammed full of black sludge and squashed cigarette butts. A television is upside down in your bathtub, still on. It isn’t yours. Your guests are all gone. You’re alone. Somehow, despite all this, you manage to feel a bit hopeful. If only you could figure out where to begin.

This is the sensation one gets reading My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers, Fiona Helmsley’s collection of essays and other writings. Anyone familiar with Helmsley’s work from places like The Rumpus, PANK, and HTMLGIANT would know this feeling, but the rest of the world needs the above visual.

For example, consider “Souvenirs.” In this essay, Helmsley paints a picture of encountering a dead man on a subway platform during her youth:

“My mother tried to avert three sets of eyes: mine, my brother’s, and my sister’s, but there was no way I wasn’t going to look. I read about death all the time, and here it was, close. The man was a stranger, and his death provoked no emotion in me, so it was easy to gawk. When I started having sex a few years later, I would feel a similar way about my partners. I always felt the most comfortable having sex with people I felt nothing for.”

The various pieces in the collection similarly mix the brutal reality of the world with a sense of wondrous curiosity, intelligent contemplation, and biting insight. “A Write of Passage for a Boy Who Grew Up in a Trunk” gives us the painful remembrance of seriously wounding a boyfriend when caught stealing his money to score heroin. The memory worsens with a reflexive request for someone else to take care of him so that the protagonist can get the drugs right away. “Captain Save-A-Ho” introduces a decent man who the protagonist meets while working in the sex industry, and attempts to process a permanent uncertainty over whether he died in the September 11th attacks. There is variety in the pieces of the book, but they all proceed from that same voice, one trying to make something beautiful out of the mess that is life.

The prose is tight and solid, and it can certainly stun when it wants to, such as this bit from “Arm Candy:”

“Later, she fucks a man from the bar in the bed I’m trying to sleep in, scream-moaning in mock ecstasy to ensure I will awaken in case I’ve finally fallen asleep. I conceded defeat, and get up and move out to the couch.”

The intimacy with a stranger that the writing evokes is the real gem. We may not have had to struggle with heroin addiction or been employed as a sex worker, but Helmsley seems to be able to guess at the alienation we have felt, the times the world has assaulted us, and can link into that. The result is writing that connects to a reader strongly, words that grip tight enough to prevent looking away.

My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers features some impressive writing, both from the subjects and the skill in handling. I recommend it, as well as Helmsley’s writing in general.

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David S. Atkinson is the author of Apocalypse All the Time, Not Quite so Stories, The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes, and Bones Buried in the Dirt. He is a Staff Reader for Digging Through The Fat and his writing appears in Literary Orphans, The Airgonaut, Atticus Review, and others. His writing website is http://davidsatkinsonwriting.com/.