Brave New Ox

Just as America was officially (and spectacularly) embarking on its desert tour last week, ZZ Packer embarked on her book tour. "I think that this can be some sort of escape," she said last week at her reading at Elliott Bay. "In some ways I think people now see more of a need for literature. That's the only way I can look at it."

Educated at all the right places (Yale, the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Johns Hopkins), Packer's horribly titled but wonderful debut collection of stories, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere--parts of which have appeared in the New Yorker, Harper's, and elsewhere--isn't exactly the kind of thing everyone's rushing out to buy right now. On the whole, customers are asking for books like A Concise History of the Middle East, Iraq Under Siege, and War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.

Though if anyone can demonstrate that fiction is a force that gives us meaning, Packer can. In all of her stories, Packer tackles and traffics with intractable human situations. "The Ant of the Self"--which she read aloud--is about a promising high school debate champion and his abusive father, a man who gets by on bailouts and get-rich-quick schemes; a reckless, dumb, and destructive parent so down on his own lot that he does all he can to undermine the opportunities afforded to his son. The story follows them to the Million Man March where a preacher "ends by telling everyone that freedom is attained only when the ant of the self--the small, blind, crumb-seeking part of ourselves--casts off slavery and its legacy, becoming a huge brave ox." Packer's treatment of the son's failed attempts to cast off his father's influence is colorful, unexpectedly hilarious, despairing, and wise.

Her characters are passionate, principled, imperfect people--minorities mostly--struggling to overcome the constraints set by family, society, and the self. "My characters are human, first and foremost," she told an interviewer recently. "When you start believing you're black first, then human, or you're white or Chinese first, then human, you're on incredibly dangerous territory--the same territory that gave rise to slavery, fascism, Nazism, and ethnic cleansing."

She's currently working on a novel about the buffalo soldiers in the American Civil War--not exactly the logical next step for a young writer known for stories about temps, junkies, Girl Scouts, runaways, schoolteachers, and mini-mart employees. Like her stories, Packer is bright and contradictory. "As much as I am pro-peace," she said during the lengthy question-and-answer session after her reading, "I am kind of a military buff. Strangely enough." No one murmured or moved. She paused, laughed nervously, and said, "Everyone's now silent."

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