Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


Seriously by Lucia Nevai


Rating: (Recommended)




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Seriously is the debut novel of a fine short story writer, Lucia Nevai. Through taut writing well-honed from her stories, Nevai develops protagonist Tamara Johanssen in a way that reveals the pain of her past life, especially the death of her parents, and gradually reveals the future promise of life in a small town community. Nevai expresses powerful emotion through each compact chapter, titled for a character in the town.


Here’s an excerpt, all of the chapter titled, “Shirley Girt of Girt Real Estate,” pp. 60-67:


She was a little too old to dye her hair so even an auburn or to wear the girlish clothing she favored. Her yellow sundress was starched to the limit, which only served to emphasize the soft, wrinkled, aging shoulders beneath the straps. She carried a large white purse with a loud clasp and drove a loud white Oldsmobile, which she floored at the slightest provocation, sometimes, I began to suspect, simply because her large right foot twitched. Her eyes were shiny, round, and flat; they looked sewn to her soft, white face like buttons.


I sat before Shirley Girt of Girt Real Estate with my hair in a recently tangled swirl about my shoulders, wearing a stolen blue sheath and smelling faintly of aftershave from the nape of my neck to the hollows of my knees. To Shirley, it was the scent of art. It was as if she knew my future before I did.


I was not a trusting person then, yet I put my trust in Shirley Girt. She was like the old, soft plain doll I had superstitiously loved the most in childhood, assuming the ice-cold, beautiful dolls arranged so rigidly on my pillow could not or would not love me back.


I asked to see rentals. Shirley flicked through the listing book, making small noises of discovery—bargain noises, they might have been called. “This should be fun,” she said as we both listened to the printer printing out listing sheets. She saved her disclaimer for the Olds, saying as we drove, “Some of these I haven’t seen.”


She hooked a left at a DEAD END sign and drove to the dead part. “This is for rent,” she said. It was a long, low dairy barn built of cinder blocks, with three small evenly spaced windows on each side and a ventilator on the roof. We got out of the car. I followed her into the dank, echoing building.


“These would have to come out,” she said, wrestling with a stanchion with a concrete base where a cow was once milked. There were fifty-nine more just like it. I was speechless.


“No?” she said, helping me out.


We drove to New Jersey to examine a two-room cabin with nesting red squirrels and no plumbing. Across the Delaware River back in New York, we inspected an abandoned eighteen-unit motel. Closer to home, we toured a duplex half-finished by a ge­nius of the half-finish——half a floor, half a wall, half a roof. Shirley talked up each rental with astounding neutrality, itemizing the selling points in measured, newsy tones in spite of my obvious hor­ror, until I stopped her—and she stopped on a dime.


“Do you have your calendar with you?” she asked, whisking out hers at the end of the day. The sheer potential she’d exposed me to had refreshed and rejuvenated her. I had no calendar. I had no strength. I could have run a small galaxy with the creative en­ergy I had expended, dredging up a workable enthusiasm for each unacceptable listing, discarding it well beyond the unthinkable stage, long after I’d warped my brain in the effort to forge a new identity to match the rental.


“Any day is good,” I said.


I wore my own jeans the next time I went out with Shirley. I wore my Nikon, too. I needed to anchor myself in reality so my re­action time would be quicker. It seemed to work—the properties we looked at were lovely. I went floating from room to room, dreaming of a graceful life amid imported bath tile with whirlpool overlooking small stream while Shirley happily examined the pri­vate incriminating trove of medications lining the medicine cabi­net or read the owner’s personal papers stored inside a closed Chippendale. Once, with no qualms whatsoever, she carried an an­tique wrought-iron shelf out to her car and put it in the trunk. “What a shame to throw this out,” she said. “Can you believe it was in the garbage?” I wasn’t so sure that it was.


Each time I asked Shirley the monthly rent of a property, she named an amount that broke my budget by a factor of ten. It seemed odd that not one of the owners was home. Looking back, I realized these high-end, luxury domiciles weren’t for rent at all—they were second homes and were for sale. My tour with Shirley counted as a showing.


“Dustin is the up-and-coming arts town,” Shirley said our third time out. The Olds rolled to a stop. It didn’t look like a town. It looked like an accidental intersection of two roads that led em­phatically somewhere else. The fronts of some buildings faced the sides and backs of others. It looked unprepared and undressed, as if it were permanently surprised from behind. There was nowhere to turn for privacy. The rust-colored antiques store was closed and apparently had been for decades. NO LUNCH read a hand-lettered sign in the window of the yellow luncheonette. Across the highway, a defiant green house bent toward the road, bearing up under twin bell curves of road dust, a high parabola for trucks, a lower one for cars. It appeared to be rebuffed by the ugly, multifamily building across the road: KEEP OUT, PRIVATE PROPERTY, KEEP OUT read the signs along the fence.


“First, the arts tour,” she said. She drove up Highway 6, pointed at a big white house, and said, “This is a very artistic woman.”


She drove back down the highway, through the crossroads, past the ice cream stand that had become the Shurberrys’ insurance agency, and halfway into a cul-de-sac, at the end of which was a dark red bungalow. “She makes crafts at Christmastime,” Shirley said.


“Which crafts?” I asked.


“Centerpieces. She has all the Styrofoam balls and cubes. She has every color of ribbon, every color of sequin, every color candle. I’m not handy myself.”


Shirley backed out of the cul-de-sac, swung a left, then a right. We drove up a hill to a native stone Arts and Crafts bungalow nes­tled in a meadow overlooking miles of rolling fields. “Saving the best for last,” she said. “This is the Doctor.” The house made a face at us, the stone steps gritting like bared teeth, the windows on ei­ther side of the door as blank as eye sockets in a skull, the veranda shading the front elevation like a single swarthy eyebrow.


We drove back down the hill to the crossroads. “This is mine,” Shirley said, parking the Olds in front of the feed store. Looking back, I was sold the very second I saw the word FEED, high and his­toric, right where I needed it to be, in fading capitals, along the storefront’s turn-of-the-century ziggurat facade. The siding was bleached gray by time and weather.

Inside, the store was long and narrow, high and dim, with pressed tin ceilings and wide-plank oak floors. The fixtures were gone, but I could still smell the clean, condensed-nutrient smell of grain dust. I walked the length of the floor twice. I could feel my fate coming to meet me.


In the rear of the store there was a little room curtained off with a bit of worn tapestry sagging from a rope. Here the former owner had lived, Shirley said, without adding and died. I was emo­tionally drawn to his little white cot, his little white stove, though Shirley Girt literally pulled me in the opposite direction.


“All new!” she said, opening the hollow-core door to the bath­room. She meant used. There was a rusting metal stall shower, a dented Masonite vanity, a half-silvered mirror. The toilet was green and it cringed in place, held hostage by jumpy, discount red plaid wallpaper.


“I did it myself,” Shirley said. I offered her the only disap­pointment of our long acquaintance by showing no measure of surprise. She presented a lease. My signature wobbled with joy on the line.


“Now for a treat!” she said.


Back in the Olds, she floored it, driving north up Highway 6 to a field filled with old white bathtubs. JOHN THE JUNKOMOLOGIST read the ragged painted plywood sandwich board in the ditch. Shirley drove through the tubs, which took some doing—they were lying about in high grass in a chaotic pattern, as if dropped there by a Red Cross plane. There were sinks, stoves, and refriger­ators. A flock of chickens waddled about, clucking and pecking, competing for invisible things in the dirt that fascinated them, shit­ting in the sinks.


Shirley parked beside a barn painted entirely with words:









“They have everything here,” Shirley said.


John himself sat near the door in a lawn chair, legs crossed daintily at the knee, reading pornography. He was a fifty-plus man with uncombed hair and half-inch-thick glasses. His mother, an old woman with two shiny warts, one just to the side of her mouth, the other along the jaw, stayed in place behind the cash register.


Wares on display included irregular U.S. Army—issue long un­derwear, new stainless-steel shoehorns, ioo% linen handkerchiefs, paper towels, coasters from the 19505, used garden tools on special at fifty cents each. Shirley and I both bought shovels. After we paid, John’s mother followed me out to the Olds. She got up close to me, her warts almost touching my face. “Would you marry my son?” she said.


“No, she won’t,” Shirley said. In the Olds she winked, saying, “Welcome to Dustin.”


The feed store had become an art gallery with two unsuccess­ful shows behind it when Shirley Girt began to send me photogra­phy customers. In addition to the cannery in Pennsylvania that had hired me to shoot the assembly line for its annual report, the Wickley Chamber of Commerce invited me to do a formal portrait of its new president. He was also president of the Minisink County Trust Company and paid me to photograph his seven branches for an ad campaign. I was in business.


That fall a rumor began to circulate throughout Dustin: Tom and Jean Jaeger were thinking of giving up farming. There was a lot of discussion in the hamlet about what should be done with the Jaegers’ six hundred acres on the hill west of Dustin. A school, a nature preserve, a baseball diamond—those were the three uses that people fought about. A couple of times I thought I saw Shirley’s white Olds parked at the Jaegers’ farmhouse. Before any­one knew it, a deal was struck with a developer from New Jersey. A surveyor came. Next, a flatbed trailer carried a backhoe up the hill. The excavator began to dig the foundations for eight town houses. There were plans for ninety-six more.


The Doctor’s handsome native stone house went on the mar­ket. Realtors from several counties had prospectives lined up to see it, but the house went quickly to Dave and Ray, two middle-aged guys from Manhattan. They planned to transform it into a French restaurant, Do-Ray-Mi. I thought I saw a white Olds parked be­hind their black BMW.


By summer there were eight new middle-class families plant­ing petunias and installing swing sets in the town houses on the hill. A steady stream of house hunters toured the model home. The French restaurant fed them lunch.


Then came the blow from which Dustin’s three Presbyterians were not to recover. Their church was sold by special arrangement with the synod. A sports outfitter took out the pews and filled up the church with red and green Mad River canoes. Delaware River canoe trips were big business now. I saw the white Olds.


A couple from Connecticut came canoeing and fell in love with the hamlet. They bought the old Dustin Hotel. Down came the ugly fence with its rude KEEP OUT signs. Out went the cheap par­titions that broke up the building into welfare apartments. In went a grand central staircase with a solid oak balustrade. Dustin got a bed-and-breakfast.


A year later there were ten of us on Shirley Girt’s arts tour. My gallery was number one, though I narrowly beat out John the Junkomologist. New Yorkers were as taken with John’s colorful white trashiness as with the odd bargains he had for sale. Plus, every woman between sixteen and sixty got a kick out of the offer of marriage from John’s mother.


Soon enough, Shirley Girt put my gallery on the market at a price that reflected the increase in value directly resulting from renovations completed and financed by me. With a loan from my sister, I had to outbid two wealthy women artists from New York City to keep my home and livelihood. In effect, I paid twice to re­store it.


As the three of them predatorily stalked the gallery in its gleaming, welcoming, pristine state, eyes twitching with dollar signs, purses itching with checks that were easy to write and quick to bind, there was no trace of the ugly doll. Shirley Girt looked like one of them: tough, sophisticated, and greedy, draped in overly thought-out apparel, clanging with heavy, original, artisanal jew­elry, and generally exhibiting a self-interest so amoral, thorough, and chilling as to be indistinguishable from the forces of nature.


Nevai’s descriptive language provides enough, and never too much. The image of Shirley Girt in this chapter is but one of many that Nevai accomplishes with great skill. If you’re looking for pleasurable reading that doesn’t insult your intelligence, pick up Seriously.


Steve Hopkins, December 20, 2004



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

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