Drinking Coffee Elsewhere
by ZZ Packer

Riverhead Bks, NY, 2003. ISBN 1573222348.
Reviewed by Judith Helburn
Posted on 10/08/2003


ZZ Packer is a gutsy, tough, funny, wise-beyond-her-years young writer. Always an outsider, a brainy black girl living a segregated life, she views the world from which she came and the world to which she has entry with a sensitivity beyond her years. In "Speaking in Tongues," one gets the feeling her character would like to be able to prove herself within her church and her family by speaking in tongues, but it just doesn't happen. And while she remains an outsider in that regard, she and her friend Marcelle are "the only saved students in Rutherford B. Hayes High, roaming the halls together in their ankle-length skirts, their long-sleeved ruffled blouses while the others watched." The rest of the story is a fairy tale that might have actually happened—rural girl runs away to the big city and finally, after misadventure after misadventure, returns home relatively intact. The story has a Don Quixote flavor to it.

Then there is Doris in "Doris is Coming", watching television with old Stutz in his shop, viewing integration with Dr. Martin Luther King somewhere else. Oh, she gets ideas that no nice Pentecostal girl should have. After much thought, even consultation with her preacher, she decides to do a one-[almost] woman sit-in at Clovee's Five and Dime.

She sits even after being told that she can not be served. She takes out her World History book and starts to read. No one throws her out; no one pays much attention to her. "When Doris closed her book, about to leave, she said, 'I just want you to know I'm leaving now. Not because you're making me or because I feel intimidated or anything. I just have to get home now.' She starts for home. She knew that she should hurry, but she couldn't. She had to stop and look. The sky had just turned her favorite shade of barely lit blue, the kind that came to windows when you couldn't get back to sleep but couldn't quite pry yourself awake."

Packer writes complicated, thoughtful stories with skill and surprises. She introduces me to a world I do not know.

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