If the Heart Is Lean

by Margaret Luongo

Published by Louisiana State University Press, 156 pp.
Copyright © 2008 by Margaret Luongo
ISBN 978-0-8071-3376-7 (pbk.:alk,paper)

A Review by Peter Fontaine

If you are like I was, you’ve never heard of Margaret Luongo and probably haven’t heard a thing about her debut collection of stories If the Heart Is Lean. If you are like I was, then this review is for you. I hardly need to address those readers lucky enough to have caught one of these stories found in this slim but dense volume in an issue of Tin House or Cincinnati Review. You are already hooked and have sought out the great stories that are cousined to the first story you read.

Let me begin by writing that I can’t do justice to this collection by summarizing the stories. A quick list of titles will strike the nerve of familiarity and perhaps trepidation: “Pretty,” “Every Year the Baby Dies,” “What Nina Wants,” “A Message from the Water,” “Boyfriends,” “Tea Set.” Suddenly we’re immersed in bad high school poetry readings and earnest personal college fiction. But we deceive ourselves if we stop there and don’t at least read the first pages. The woman in “Pretty” is anything but from a conventional viewpoint. The opening lines, “I love being drunk. Is that bad?” are refreshing in their simplicity and honesty, but don’t they also just entice? The narrator shares her desire as well as her lack of proper reflection and comes face to face with both by the end in surprising yet inevitable ways. We are also surprised in “Every Year the Baby Dies” by how much life is going on for the characters amid the ominous presence of the newly brought home baby. We wait for the baby to die, and while we wait an incredible perspective is achieved as we glimpse the people touched by death and the waiting for death. “What Nina Wants,” is only as important as how Nina wants it. There’s music, a party, a gun goes off. “Boyfriends” is just about that, but the woman in question is dead and (soon to be) buried and, worst of all, mortified beyond belief by having them all assembled for her funeral.

Each time I expected to read a story I had read somewhere before by someone else, and each time I was delightfully disappointed. In the title story, the narrator, a woman who is mistress to Larry (a married man now dead), is in the morgue with the coroner, a mutual acquaintance, and she asks to see Larry’s heart. She explains in the narration, “I thought if Larry’s heart was covered in fat I’d know his death was plain misfortune or genetics or too many fried oysters. But if the heart was lean I’d know something else.” This is very early on in the story and the rest of it follows the narrator finding out what that “something else is,” though the door of revelation swings back on her and we learn “something else” about her as well. It’s no accident or arbitrary fancy that this is the title story. Each story here is about that lean heart, which points to something else that isn’t easily explained, categorized, or precedented. Seeing the heart for ourselves, like the narrator in the title story, is a new and unnerving experience, but it is also one of necessity and fascination.

Luongo’s book is one of those perfect blends you hear about, smart and entertaining, funny and sad, thoughtful and wild, sexy and cool, like one of those gourmet coffees that can only be manufactured today, but tastes as natural and delicious as if it were first perfected centuries ago. Each of the sixteen stories is a tour de force of technique and story, of character and pacing, and of language and concept. Seek out this book and put it by your chair or bedside; you won’t regret it.

“Peter Fontaine lives in Atlanta where he is finishing his PhD in Creative Writing from Georgia State University. He is also the fiction editor of the GSU literary journal New South. His most recent publication is with Sub-Lit.com.”