Roberta Allen presents characters who are never at home in the world, who find in their surroundings “the strangeness” they feel inside themselves.
The thirty-three stories in Certain People are set in Australia and other exotic locales. The first story, “House Hunting,” tells of a successful gentleman who is having a life crisis. His lover has left him for a cook. “The man whose lover left him for a cook” reappears throughout the book, his life slowly crumbling as he recognizes his inability to connect with himself and others. In “The Whore,” a young, beautiful wife is ignored by her husband, who is enthralled by the life stories of a middle-aged prostitute.
Written in a tactile and painterly manner, the author questions the way we perceive our world and self. In these stories, the world is a place of shifting relations where truths are relative. What one person sees is not the same as another. One’s perceptions may change in a flash or not at all. One may cling to people or things long out of sight.
“Allen is a visual artist of some renown, as one might guess from her painterly style, which delivers a slashing detail here, a dab of color there, and an economy of line that is frequently wondrous.” —Steve Almond, Chelsea
“This is a sly, edgy, shrewd book.” —Robert Polito
“Roberta Allen, who is an artist as well as a writer, projects a vivid sense of place and local color in this compilation of short and ultrashort stories. . . . At their best, her stories intimately convey the spiritual malaise of people at odds with an alien environment or with their own deeply shrouded impulses.” —Laura Winters, The New York Times Book Review
“The latest in the publisher’s Coffee-to-Go series brings together 33 extremely short stories into a rather short book. Most stories are set in Australia and New York and feature artists, curators and writers as the principal characters. In “House Hunting,” a man mourns a lover who left him for a cook. “The man,” as he is initially called (or “the man whose lover left him for a cook,” as he is subsequently called), seems less bothered by the fact that his lover has departed than that she left him for a cook. “Without Shame” tells how this same affluent man drives through a neighborhood filled with mansions even he can’t afford in an attempt to deal with his grief. “Here, the man who is rich can feel poor; a poor man can be left for a cook without shame,” states the narrator in this one-paragraph, one-page story. Another recurring character appears in “Brief Encounters” and “Bar Ecology,” tales narrated by a bartender who says in the latter piece: “I let my customers do the talking. I do the listening.” In both these longer stories and her tiny, vivid set pieces, Allen herself plays the listener. She holds her characters at a distance, rarely giving them names but instead according them the bemused attention of a good-natured deity.” —Publishers Weekly