Garrett Socol’s collection of short stories may bear the title Gathered Here Together, but upon reading just a few stories, the reader will quickly discover that a major theme in the book is the modern condition of chronic loneliness. Socol places his characters in all kinds of social situations (parties, funerals, the workplace, at home with a spouse), but regardless of the locale, nearly every character encountered lacks the human connection they desire. As such, these stories abound with the evidence of desperation — promiscuous sex, divorce, murder, suicide attempts (successful and unsuccessful).
If not for the liberal doses of humor throughout, it would be tough to slog through this dysfunctional list, but Socol’s saving grace in this collection is his deft use of language to create delight or humor where otherwise there would be nothing but horror or sorrow. To Socol’s credit, this relief is usually not dependent upon a funny situation or in something a character says, easy techniques in short fiction, but most often on a clever turn of phrase. For example, in the beginning of “Aromatherapy,” a woman has been strangled in a small local spa while getting a facial, and “five minutes later, six Seven Springs police officers were inspecting the spa . ...”; this delightful little fact provides us with a mini break from the horror of the scene before we start taking it too seriously (93).
Another technique Socol employs to keep things light where they might otherwise be overwhelmingly dismal is his use of imaginative lists to help create a vivid and comical images of otherwise awful scenes. This use of distraction works well in “Liquor Store Lust” when, after protagonist Suzy accidentally sets a fire while in a drunken state, “sirens were blasting and fire engines crowded the street, but the linens, mattresses, carpet, drapes, phone books, and phones in the motel had already turned to ash — not to mention the pillows, towels, toilet paper, lamp shades, lamps, and tiny bottles of shampoo” (91). By the time we are finished reading the list, we have nearly forgotten how bad things are for Suzy and we are ready to take in the ending, which is one of the more optimistic endings Socol gives us.
However, for all of the intricacies of Socol’s use of lists and alliteration, many of his characters are broadly drawn, almost caricatures, instead of believable people on their journeys through the modern world of loneliness and desperation. Nearly every female character is abundantly worthy of sexual objectification and/or sex-crazed, which oftentimes manifests in a willingness to sleep with any male who catches her eye; the only relationships between men and women that are remotely healthy always occur between an amiable gay man and a generally miserable woman. Many characters seem like an exercise in hyperbole, from the obese man who is not just fat, but five hundred pounds, to the autistic young man who will take everything he hears utterly literally with absolutely no understanding of the consequences of his actions. More often than not, the reader might wrestle with the unlikelihood of such a person existing rather than accepting the quirkiness of a fictional character.
One story stands out in the collection’s sea of missed connections and improbable people: “Gone Shopping,” the story of a dying man and his best friend who search together for just the right urn for his ashes. The genuine love these two characters have for one another, among the many stories of superficial relationships, demonstrates that Socol is quite capable of painting a touching, thought-provoking picture of the human struggle to connect with one another and survive this cruel world or, at least, to die with dignity. This story invites us to ponder the profundity of friendship as a coping mechanism that enables one to face death or go on with life; the two main characters are allowed to reveal their humanity. If all of Socol’s characters were as genuine as these two, the outlandish ways in which they choose to cope with such unfortunate situations would not distract from the truths he wants us to consider, and instead might seem the only reasonable choice in an unreasonably lonely and cruel world.