The stories in Daniel Perry’s debut collection are arranged in three sections – Coarse, Medium, and Fine – corresponding to three textures of hamburger meat. This provides an obvious link to the book’s title (which also serves as the title of the first story) and sketches a very rough breakdown of the forms the stories take. The Coarse stories are quite short – one consisting of a single sentence and most of the others running only a few pages. The Medium stories average around 10 pages each, and the final section – Fine – consists of a single story divided into three parts.
Tastes in hamburger vary, but as far as this reviwer’s palatte is concerned, Perry’s shorter pieces are the most successful: narrow slices of contemporary life dealing with characters who seem to have just missed epiphanic moments, as though being late for a bus. Relationships slide apart, and often appear not to have been based on anything concrete in the first place.
The first story sets the tone, with its wannabe-writer protagonist reading Updike in a hamburger joint while connecting on some imaginary romantic level with a teenage counter girl. We are in a landscape of fast food and garbage, with the two often being equated (the story begins with an image of Dumpsters that “serve hungry truck mouths”). Junk food is a leitmotif in a number of the stories, via characters working in the fast food industry, or, on a metaphorical level, as a stand-in for our disposable culture. Junk news, for example, finds its way into a local newspaper in the story “Gleaner,” disrupting lives in the process. Though even junk news, the story suggests, can reveal truth. Even a “crappy, point-and-shoot” picture has the capacity to uncover beauty.
In the longer pieces, Perry seems less at ease. The writing continues to be brief and discontinuous, more grounded in revealing moments and impressions than in conventional narrative, though a self-regarding note in a couple of stories – “Vaporetto” and “Three Deaths of James Arthur Doole” – suggests discomfort with such conventions.
Hamburger has flavour, but it’s best enjoyed in small bites