Tristan Davies’ stories in Cake contain a precision of imagery and metaphor which results in an emotionally acute, occasionally dreamlike, sometimes surreal illumination of some aspect of love, individual identity, and even existence itself. Like Paul Bowles’ fiction, the stories in Cake typically pivot on a psychological fulcrum, and once the downward slide begins there is no way back for the characters (and for the reader, too . . . aaahhhhhhh!).
The publisher describes “Talent Show” as introducing “us to a series of unnamed women, their dreams and aspirations summed up in a few deceptively simple lines. One life leads into another, until we return to where we began, like a cinematic pan across a landscape of ambition gone awry.” Stephen Dixon remarked of Cake that:
Tristan Davies’s fiction is a cross between John Cheever and Evelyn Waugh, with a bit of F. Scott Fitzgerald joined in. It’s witty, urbane, funny, poignant, and sophisticated. He’s a writer with a graceful and immediately readable style and an original, spirited, and incisive take on contemporary life. Cake is a strong and impressive literary debut.
The way newlyweds die: The honeymoon in Ixtapa, rising early from a sleepless night of lovemaking they wander hand in hand to the hotel pool, intending to guiltily dip away the nights sweat upon sweat before their breakfast of mango wedges, sips of dark coffee, an experimental chimichanga. They come upon the renal pool, one distant lowered lip allowing its water to slip to a pool lower, then to one below that, then to the Pacific and away. It is dawn secluded, just as they imagined it would be. Except, no! The white-clad figure of a pool attendant floats face down in the blue water. His brown ankles peek from between his white trousers and white canvas shoes. In his outstretched hand he still grasps the skimmer. The young husband is fit, crew-cropped, handsome, and tanned from tennis and weekend golf. He is also dangerously drunk from his recent extended sexual triumph, a campaign of huge field and intense combat, a tiny Noh play on an oversized bed against the only purely willing combatant he has ever known. Distended, sore, sleepless, but alive with the power that only carnal vigor can afford, he does not pause. A natural athlete, in three long steps, he sheds his barely buttoned shirt and Hopping shoes and launches to save the life of the peasant. But for birth and education, sufficient protein, and a missed diagnosis early in childhood, this worker could be he—the guest, the gringo, the newlywed: fit, clever, a beautiful wife, and a full life spread like a royal flush on the blue baize below his lifesaving dive.
There is a black-spiked prick of unseen evil coiled in an Andromedan grotto of the gardenia-decked pool. Like a serpent’s tail it twists beneath the surface. Her breath drawn deeply, the young wife watches. Her husband’s perfectly sculpted abdomen, where not an hour before she had rested her tired head, flexes in his powerful but futile arc toward the cruelly still water. Crude, unstepped Mexican electricity pulses through it, making its blue bed vitally alive.
As in the way I died when I met you, seated at a small round table in the sun, wearing white, a gold chain, and a ring set with a nacreous opal, the current coursed through me as. I met your eye, a polluted, pregnant pool. But rather than suffer sudden convulsive death I became a sybaritic Sisyphus, hanging forever upon the lip of your bougainvillea-ringed and electricity-ruined pool. Each day I push my tear-stained rock to Silex’s craggy summit, a task I perform by simply focusing the jangly currents of my own lost and wasted brain.
Hates herself, runs away up to Washington, D.C., becomes a naked dancer at a talent show four blocks from the White House. Hates herself, runs away from home to Los Angeles, California, appears in two or so pornos, knocks around, lives for four years with an automobile mechanic in Santa Monica. Settles finally in Fresno, working for the state. Later she volunteers on a rape hot-line.
Hates herself, stays home in Westmoreland County, Virginia. Drops out of high school and marries a boy whose family owns a feed store, runs the county’s school busses. No children. Lives out the rest of her life in her maternal grandmother’s house, left to her when her grandmother dies.
Hates herself, stays home, finishes high school. Attends UVa, plays varsity soccer two years, quits after indeterminate benching, but keeps small scholarship money. Meets a boy from Baltimore, a lacrosse player. After graduation, she follows him back to that city, where he intends on becoming a writer. Under pressure from his parents, he attends law school six years later as a “mature student.” She leaves him during finals in the spring of his second year. They were together for twelve years.
Hates herself, graduates valedictorian from high school in Westmoreland County, Virginia, is admitted early decision to Yale. It is the first instance of this from her high school, according to her college counselor. Goes to Yale and studies biology. Twice suffers non-consensual intercourse, the second time at the hands of four pre-medical majors with whom she studies organic chemistry. Dates a lacrosse payer her senior year, tells him one night of the acquaintance rapes. He is shot to death late the next evening, while walking home from a party.
Graduates fourth in her class from Westmoreland High, is admitted to Yale. Receives a “reputation” there her freshman year which, though embarrassing, she admits to herself is deserved. Twice finds herself in sexual situations so distasteful that, subsequent to each, she experiences severe depressions marked by incidences of self-mutilation. These she attributes—both times—to different roommates’ cats. Is recognized by the faculty as an intense student. After graduation, works two years in Baltimore as manager of an adult literacy center. Returns to attend Yale Law. While studying there becomes engaged to a medical resident in New Haven. One night, she discovers her fiancee and three other men—residents as well—having sex with two exotic dancers at a large bachelor party held in her home to celebrate one of their colleagues’ engagement.
Westmoreland County High, fourth in class, Yale, Baltimore Literacy Project, returns to Yale law, engagement to a surgery resident. Breaks engagement for reasons never made clear to family or friends. Graduates law school and is appointed to a much sought-after clerkship, working for a future Supreme Court justice on the D.C. bench. Two years later takes a job with the International Monetary Fund, then, two years after that, moves to the Washington offices of a major international investment bank.
One night she joins two colleagues and two prominent clients at a business dinner. Afterward, on something of a dare, she joins them in visiting a naked dancing club that is four blocks from the White House.
Sits at the runway between the clients. Watches with a nervous smile as a stalky young woman wearing nothing but high heels and a gold chain around her waist grasps a smeared brass pole. The dancer wraps a bare leg over the shoulder of one of the clients.
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