Small presses still have a function. In a time of creeping homogeneity, perhaps they have even a greater function than ever before. They look farther and deeper into our culture to find new writers doing interesting things that might fall outside the mainstream categories. Although novellas — that wonderfully odd form somewhere between a long story and a short novel — do get collected from time to time, they remain difficult things to see into print. Low Fidelity Press, a new little press in Brooklyn, New York, has decided to publish novellas with an edge. The first winner of its first contest is EMU lecturer Stefan Kiesbye, an M.F.A. graduate of the U-M. Kiesbye's beautifully written and deeply troubling novella, Next Door Lived a Girl, seems to present itself as a coming-of-age story. A group of adolescent boys in a bleak German industrial town form their own small gang. They worry about a rival gang, move on their bicycles through the towns and countryside, explore abandoned World War II bunkers that litter the woods, and have the expected sexual fantasies. Kiesbye is particularly good at capturing the uncertain but heightened sensations of the first moves toward intimacy. Here is Moritz, his protagonist, describing the moment just before his first kiss:
My teeth chatter and I can feel every object in the room. The teapot behind me, the posters and stickers, the record-player in my back, everything has come to life. Like someone who hasn't drunk in days and arrives at a well, knowing it's poisoned, I bring my lips closer. Closer I move my shivering lips and drink.
Buried in what might seem a sweet little scene is a clue to Kiesbye's darker vision: the first-time lovers already know that this well is poisoned.
There is a darkness behind these ordinary lives, a violence waiting to surface at a moment's notice. These seeming innocents can explode into brutal assaults on their rivals; they have no compunctions about random attacks and thievery. They try to care for a damaged wild child, but they make all the wrong choices, keeping her isolated in their hidden bunker as a kind of carefully tended plaything.
Although, with Kiesbye's portrayal of violence, Next Door Lived a Girl would not be a book for every reader, his sense that a cold brutality lies beneath the surface of everyday life makes this little book genuinely disturbing. When the violence surfaces here, it is indeed shocking, but it also seems, as Charles Baxter has noted, inevitable. That I respond that way makes me question my own platitudes again.
Stefan Kiesbye reads from Next Door Lived a Girl at the Ladies' Literary Club in Ypsilanti on Wednesday, January 12.