I tried to find a song or video the summed up the tone of Jacob Mendelsohn’s book without the religious assumptions but Godspell’s “Day by Day” captures the daily conflicts of his characters most perfectly.
I spent my summer getting to know Wilson Vincent (who was once accused of a terrible crime), Laurie (who used to waitress at Jake’s Roadside BBQ), Lenny (who is struggling to get out of a rut), Melinda (who teaches guitar), and many of the other characters in Jacob Mendelsohn’s All My Goodbyes, a dense collection of portraits and sketches of people we might have passed on the street or waited in line behind (or in front of) at the corner bodega checkout.
The people Jacob describes in his stories are familiar, everyday people. If not strength, there is comfort in numbers, in being just one of the crowd. This commonality (conformity?) is what makes Jacob’s stories so cathartic to read. I know people like Wilson Vincent, who because of his condition people are quick to judge. And I definitely know people like Lenny and Melinda, who are kind of like me, struggling to convince ourselves that the common sense way of living is the best way.
“Witnesses” is easily my favorite story in the collection. It’s a dramatic beginning to a relatively somber collection where nothing monumental happens. Unlike the other stories in All My Goodbyes “Witnesses” tells the story of kidnapping and murder of Darryl Barnum, an eight year old boy in Lennox, Mississippi and the town’s prime suspect, a mentally delayed teenager named, Wilson Vincent. I say the town’s because though the police cleared him, his neighbors still suspected him of the horrific killing.
“The Shift Workers,” my second favorite story in the collection, shares a similar truth vs. socially contracted truth dynamic as “Witnesses.” The community, in this case a group of friends who meet at a bar, share an unspoken belief that the bartender is the father of their favorite waitress’ baby. With the exception of one, Mike, who worked in management, all of the friends work on the assembly line at Janus Business Equipment (or “the Calc” as they call it), piecing together the small parts in computers. Each of the friends also took turns babysitting their waitress’ baby, Aaron, who Jacob uses as a catalyst to explore each of the friend’s fading dreams.
It’s ironic that the two stories that most clearly demonstrate Jacob’s style of storytelling are my two least favorite stories in his collection: “Station to Station” and “The Day of the Day.” The former demonstrates the slightly removed, observational tone that Jacob uses in all of his stories. While the events may be dramatic, the murder of a boy or the self-pity of missing a personal goal, Jacob relates the events with a somewhat cold observational eye. In “Station to Station,” Jacob jumps between first person narration of the subject being observed and the first person reporting of the observer. It is an interesting interpretation of a Spy Vs. Spy battle.
“The Day of the Day” exemplifies the omniscient narrator that appears in all of Jacob’s stories. He or she shares information and feelings that sometimes even the characters themselves don’t know they have. The danger is sometimes the narrators can sound judgmental and snobbish. The narrator in “The Day of the Day” follows the main character around his mundane life like the ghost of a Tiger Mom bound to that person, criticizing everything he does.
I read Jaocob Mendelsohn’s All My Goodbyes on my subway rides to and from work. I would look up and wonder if I were on the train with Monk Simpson from “The Shift Workers” or Len from “Good for You” or Melinda from “Drift.” I would play a game and try to match the faces I saw to the people I’d just read about. I enjoyed reading All My Goodbyes but took breaks in between because the narrator never changed. I needed an occasional pause in the conversation I was having with Jacob’s narrator.