Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s book of short stories Brief Encounters with the Enemy is dripping with so much melancholy that you’d think it’d be too depressing to get through. He sets his stories in present-day nondescript Americana where the economy is shitty, there’s an ongoing unnamed war, and America’s strapping young men toil in crappy dead-end jobs and dead-end lives. But despite the heavy situation, Sayrafiezadeh’s prose brims with such beautiful sadness that it makes you hopeful for a better future anyway.
The release is a digestible collection of eight tales with pseudo-intersecting plot lines. Men are at work, men are at war, men return from war and go back to work. Sayrafiezadeh, for the most part, skips the whole combat malaise and dives right into the heart of everyday banality instead. In each piece we meet a man at a particular standstill in his life. Some are in the blue collar workplace. Others are at war. But in each story, the hero is struggling and seemingly alone, and in search of meaningless thrills to pass the time.
There’s Ike, a young short order diner cook in “Appetite” pining for a raise in order to have enough money to ask out one of the waitresses. But Ike is so bad at his job that the customer complaints keep him from his non-deserved promotion. In “Associate,” Nick is a klepto manager of a Wal-Mart who steals and scalps in order to get by. At the same time, he attempts to woo the daughter of a guy he’s trying to sell his stolen merchandise to. In “Enchantment,” Jake, home from war, has taken up house-sitting his boss’s place who’s on vacation. Taking advantage of the house, Jake brings his affair with a married woman into his temporary living quarters, neglecting to do the one thing his boss asked him to take care of in his absence.
Brief Encounters with the Enemy, Sayrafiezadeh’s first book of fiction, is easily one of my favorite releases from this year. Echoing loudly in the John Updike chamber, Sayrafiezadeh’s stories eloquently focus on mundane and quiet moments just as they begin to escalate, following these episodes to their devastating outcomes. These stories are not as tragic as, say, Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener but they pay deep respect and honor the anonymous worker, similar to the way unnamed men in war are acknowledged with badges of gratitude. And sad as the characters in Brief Encounters with the Enemy seem, Sayrafiezadeh celebrates the men in his stories, wrapped up in words of bittersweet hope.