Letitia Moffitt, Sidewalk Dancing

Publisher: Atticus Books

2013, 158 pages, paperback, $15

if you have reservations about the novel-in-stories form, they are needless in regard to Sidewalk Dancing, Letitia Moffitt’s debut novel. It becomes clear early on that, although Miranda McGee is the central character and primary mover of the novel’s narrative, it’s Miranda’s mother, Grace, who’s the heart and soul of the narrative. The early stories in the collection far pre-date the introduction of the central character and cement the remainder of the book under the heading of complicated family affair.

In the later stories when Miranda begins to take over the overarching narrative, there’s still the sense that her hardworking mother lives somewhere between the lines. Adding to the pathos in such emotional stories as “Living Dead” and “That’s Nothing” is the knowledge that Grace is conspicuously absent from the text, but is undoubtedly somewhere in Miranda’s mind.

The joy in reading these stories together as a novel is in the unwitting convergence of Grace and Miranda’s lives. When Miranda’s significant other’s harebrained ideas begin to match ideas and actions of her father, George, the stories begin to coalesce into a novel and soar. The convergence of the generations is handled so smoothly it’s hard to imagine any reader tripping over the changing of the protagonist guard, so to speak, following the book’s second story.

From the physical obsessions of Grace to the adventurism of George to the mental and intellectual obsessions of Miranda, Moffitt never misses a step in the development of these characters. It is a marvel that such complex and flawed characters can exist in the same one hundred and fifty-page universe. Rarely do books thrice this size pack so many main protagonist characters into a narrative, yet this book effortlessly does so without a cramped or claustrophobic moment.

The stand-alone quality of the stories within the novel ensures each story has its own conflict, but the novel’s main internal struggle exists within the “Living Dead” when Miranda becomes sick with the flu:

In the beginning of winter I hardly ever wished for death. Whenever I thought about being dead, I would immediately correct myself, No, I can’t wish for that, because I already am dead. I could only wish to be alive, and at the time that seemed an impossibility. I was an urban zombie; I moved around the city as a slide projection of myself, flickering on sidewalks and in back walls of rooms, while people moved through me untouched and the things I passed over warped my image.

So begins the trip into a surreal illness, which alone makes the novel worth reading. The story of Miranda’s sickness is at once an eerily cold, distant retelling of an event and an intensely close—at times uncomfortably so—examination of living as an outcast in a city nearly five thousand miles from a home where she also felt she was living as an outcast. It tells the story of a despair that goes much deeper than a mere case of the flu. While much of the novel deals with the trauma of, coming to terms with, and eventual embracing of living as an outcast from family, friends, and coworkers, Moffitt never comes closer to the existential dread of feeling alone in the universe than here. This knockout of a story is worth reading the book alone though the rest of the stories are similarly striking tales of woe and happiness told with enviable precision and heart.

—Mike Pitoniak