Whisky & Culture

Short and sweet

Jefferson Chase looks at a career defining moment
By Jefferson Chase
Zz Packer is an African-American woman whose career took off in 2000 when, as a virtual unknown, she landed her story in no less than New Yorker magazine.“Opportunities,”my father says after I bail him out of jail.How’s that for a cracker of an opening sentence? It’s from a short story entitled The Ant of the Self by the writer with the unlikely name.If the moniker makes you think guys with long beards singing about raisin’ hell in Texas, you’re way off base.She deserved the success. The Ant of the Self takes the all-too-familiar plot of a thoughtful teenager’s attempt to bond with an estranged parent and gives it marvellously absurd spin.When most people talk about investing, they mean stocks or bonds or mutual funds. What my father means is his friend Splo’s cockfighting arena, or some dude who goes door to door selling exercise equipment that does all the exercise for you. He’d invested in a woman who tried selling African cichlids to pet shops, but all she’d done was dye ordinary goldfish so that they looked tropical. “Didn’t you just win some cash?” he asks. “From debate?” “Bail,” I say. “I used it to pay your bail.” Packer’s work is serious without being earnest, picturesque but not verbose – most important, it’s consistently funny.Not content with just being given a ride home, the father – Ray Bivens Jr. – makes his son take him from Kentucky to Washington, DC to attend the Million Man March.Much to the narrator’s chagrin, the trip is not at all about Louis Farrakhan, but about flogging off some exotic pets they pick up along the way.The birds are so unnaturally quiet I can’t tell if they don’t mind being jostled about among the legs of a million strangers or if they’re dying. As we work our way through the masses, Ray Bivens Jr. keeps looking off into the distance in perpetual search for the perfect customer. I try to follow my father, but it’s hard to plow through the crowd holding the cages.“Brother,” one man says shaking his head at me, “I don’t know if them birds males or not, but they sho ain’t black.” Needless to say, this isn’t the sort of outing likely to bring father and son together.Finding the demonstrators more interested in the Nation of Islam than napes and lorikeets, the two head off to a bar and an unhappy showdown.Know thyself, recriminates the son, but his father thinks that idea is, well, for the birds.“Does anyone understand themselves?” he says to me softly, and for a second he looks perfectly lucid. Then he says it louder, for the benefit of the whole bar, with a gravity only the drunk can muster. “Does anybody, I say, understand themselves?” The men at the bar look at him and decide it’s one of their many jokes, and laugh, though my father is staring straight at me, straight through me, as though I were nothing but a clear glass of whiskey into which he could see the past and future.One fistfight, one shattered bar room window, and a couple of amber, on-the-house consolation shots later, the narrator is heading back to Kentucky – alone and without his mother’s car.Packer’s given name is Zuwena. That’s Swahili for “good” – which is precisely what The Ant of the Self and the other seven stories in her book Drinking Coffee Elsewhere are.And the best thing about Packer is that she’s only 34 years old. You don’t need to stare into a clear glass of whiskey to predict that this talented young American writer is heading toward a very bright future indeed.