This Feeling of Empathy: Participants by Andrew Keating

Joe Ransom

Participants CoverAndrew Keating’s debut collection, Participants, comprises eight shapely, well-executed stories, whose characters are observed in a careful, understated manner. With a keen eye for workplace idiosyncrasies, Keating’s world is one that often deliberately focuses on characters you probably wouldn’t even glance at if they sat next to you on the bus during the morning commute.

Occasionally, when reading a story collection, I get the pleasing sense that, at some point during the creation of the work, a particular character became so intriguing to the author that it demanded inclusion in more than one story. This, I suspect, was the case when it came to Mel Leopold, the self-conscious newspaper copywriter who serves as protagonist of the middle three stories of the collection. Whether Keating wrote the three Leopold stories in the order in which they appear in the book, I cannot say. In “Mel Leopold the Brave,” the first of the series, however, there is on the page a feeling of creative origin. In the story’s opening paragraph, something begins to click—the character’s potential for further study begins to surface:

Not tomorrow. Tomorrow, he reasoned—standing naked in front of the bathroom mirror, toothbrush in hand—tomorrow he was going to change. It was time to break the cycle. Tomorrow he was going to be Mel Leopold the Brave, Mel Leopold the Irrational, Mel Leopold the Unpredictable.

As might be expected from this somewhat hopeless attempt at self-motivation, in the story that introduces him, Mel fails to exemplify any of the superlatives that he wishes followed his name. There are no great gestures of bravery, no caution thrown to the wind, only fantasies of such deviations from “the cycle.” But in the two stories that follow, “Accept/Decline” and “Forced Vacation,” Leopold embodies the adjectives he aspired to in front of the mirror in more quiet and human ways. Correctly, Keating observes that in daily life and places of work, moments of unpredictability do not always resemble Tom Cruise as Jerry Maguire stomping around a bewildered office, bagged goldfish in hand, yelling “who’s coming with me!?!” Moments of bravery do not always have to be related to a character quitting their job, delivering a juicy, emasculating quip to the boss as they walk away from a life of monotony and into one of freedom and adventure. Instead, for a character like Mel Leopold, simple acts like asking for an assignment or taking a week off, can have a significant impact.

Throughout the collection, Keating demonstrates a knack for following through on an imaginative premise. The collection’s title story, for example, is a first person narrative that tracks the “chance” meetings of two professional scientific study participants. A potentially all-too-quirky and saccharine love story is cleverly circumvented; its scientific subtitles helping to form an extra layer that serves to reveal more about the protagonist than he would ever deliberately share. While the flash story, “Three Berry Pie,” takes a detailed glance at the moments following an ill-conceived, pie-related practical joke, to produce one of the most well observed set pieces of the book. “Each glob of the pie filling fell in a straight line from his chin to the ground; and there Gordon stood, a short distance away from me, spreading the five fingers of his right hand wide and wiping gooey lines of purple from his eyes, nose, and mouth,” Keating writes, creating a scene in which the silence and shock of the company picnic bystanders is excruciatingly felt.

Though the scene rendered in “Three Berry Pie” is an uncomfortable one, because of the access we are given to the pie-throwing protagonist, readers are able to empathize with the culprit. This feeling of empathy—a kind of daily routine brand of empathy—for others' mistakes, hang-ups, and experiences is felt throughout the book.

In the final story, “Davis Field,” that routine empathy takes on extra meaning. Appropriately, Mel Leopold makes a cameo appearance in the story, which centers on his nephew, Danny. Danny’s high school baseball field is scheduled for destruction and he and his friend Jeff appear powerless to stop the plans. We learn that both Danny and Jeff’s fathers and Mel Leopold played on the same field in their youth. With that detail, the shared experience—the empathy—becomes both generational and universal, connecting father with son and character with reader. Here’s hoping that Andrew Keating’s fine debut connects with plenty more.


Participants
by Andrew Keating
Thumbnail Press, 2012
ISBN-10: 0615659942


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