Baby’s on Fire
By Liz Prato
Press 53, 2015
142 pages, $14.95
Reviewed by Laryssa Wirstiuk
When feeling sorry for themselves, some people will try to break their self pity by repeating a mantra that begins something like, “In the grand scheme of things….” Blah, blah, blah. Of course, when viewed from outer space, we humans are all just specks of dust. But fiction defies that smallness; instead, a great short story not only amplifies a character’s most personal concerns; it elevates them.
In her debut collection Baby’s on Fire, Liz Prato honors the individual’s small battles; her preoccupied but never self-absorbed characters are knee-deep in their personal struggles: negotiating what places to call home; defining and redefining relationships; caring for the injured and ill; and communicating with difficult people.
In 2014, Baby’s on Fire won second place in Press 53’s Award for Short Fiction. The press’ Founder and Publisher Kevin Morgan Watson said, “It was a collection we couldn’t pass up,” and its stories appeared in journals such as Hunger Mountain, Cream City Review, and Iron Horse Literary Review. Prato’s prose is widely appealing and many-layered: her language is breezy and deceptively casual, while her content is visceral
With the exception of one story, all of Prato’s protagonists are female, but they embody femininity in their own ways. In the story “Cool Dry Ice,” a woman adjusts her hair and reapplies lipstick in preparation for meeting her lover during a layover at an airport, while in “Riding to the Shore,” a woman kneels in a tub, rubbing the back of her cancer-afflicted partner, who vomits in the toilet beside her. That same ill woman also plays with her womanhood, even in the face of debilitating illness. “Ginny stood on the counter of the diner decorated in tinfoil…She’d made bracelets and earrings and a fake-fancy necklace by folding and shaping tiny glinting pieces. She even made a tinfoil tiara, perched on her red wig from the chemo clinic.” Though Ginny is a tinfoil version of a Hollywood actress, she still owns her presence and inspires laughter in the people around her.
Only a woman could write this book. No one, not even a man, will be able to read Prato’s story “I See You in the Bright Night” and walk alone at night without thinking of this passage: “…but it’s a funny thing: the later it is, the safer it becomes. Men who hurt women aren’t any different from regular folks in that way. At two-thirty in the morning they want to be home in bed with their wives or girlfriends, or whoever.” Most of Prato’s stories are written in this same tone: like a friend—more an acquaintance than a best friend—sharing a story or secret in passing. Every once in a while, this person, unaware of her brilliance, will share the most insightful comment. Imagine arguing about whether that damn dress is white and gold or blue and black. Prato would interject with her wisdom, “It all means the same when painted on a winter sky: snow was on the way.”
The title story and the book borrow their name from Brian Eno: a song on his 1973 debut album Here Come the Warm Jets. In the title story, protagonist Jude is a recent college graduate who has endured a string of unfortunate events. Depressed, she leaves Colorado to live with her mom and brother in Portland but arrives to a burned-down house and all her personal belongings, which she had mailed ahead of her, in ashes.
In an effort to distract themselves from their newfound homelessness, Jude and her brother attend a party with some people she used to know. In the bedroom of Jimmy, her on-again, off-again guy, she hears Brian Eno’s song for the first time; it’s completely unlike “music for airports, the kind airports never really played. But this song pushed against me from the inside, pissed as shit and dying to break out.” Originally from Denver and now living in Portland, Prato seems to be paying homage to her own lived-in places.
But other characters aren’t lucky enough to find growth in the places they know; they’re forced to confront change and messy emotions during transit, while in foreign places, or even at airports during layovers. Many of Prato’s characters are traveling or moving, and they find inspiration and life force in changes of scenery. In “Riding to the Shore” just the promise of a new place keeps the characters moving forward. Prato writes, “We’d have wine and vanilla bean ice cream, if that’s what Ginny wanted that day. The two of us would lie back in the sun, letting out skin grow warm and wet in the middle of the lake.” Prato reminds us that hope is bigger than our relative smallness.