The Poison that Purifies You by Elizabeth Kadetsky (reviewed by Robert Boucheron)

PoisonThe Poison that Purifies You

stories by Elizabeth Kadetsky

2014, C & R Press, paperback,

196 pages, $16.00

ISBN-13: 978-1936196432





The title of the book, The Poison that Purifies You, is also the title of one of ten stories. The story takes its title from a poem by Rumi, two lines remembered by the main character, Jack: “The water that pollutes you is poison, the poison that purifies you is water.” Jack does not explain these lines, and neither does the author.

Jack, a lonely, middle-aged American visiting Delhi, has been taken hostage by a suave young man who calls himself Rohit and four Islamic militants. Jack is homosexual, over-educated, too trusting, and given to flights of fantasy. He falls in love with Rohit, who pretends to be an upper caste Indian. As Jack’s keeper, Rohit recites poetry in Urdu, including these by Rumi, “worshipper of a delectable and godly object of passion whose name was Shams. A man.” Rohit muses on his school days, “the lads in the second form . . . the enchantment.” He says: “We understand each other, bhai. This is the strongest friendship I have made in a long time.”

The word bhai is Hindi for “brother,” a common way to address a friend. Rumi (1207-1273) was a Persian poet and Sufi mystic. He wrote love poems, was widely translated, and remains popular today throughout the Islamic world. Rohit, also called Johnny, is not who he claims to be, and his antic behavior implies that he is not quite sane, either. The story presents fine sketches of the two characters, both dreamers. Are they waiting for ransom? Lying side by side in the “safe house,” will they have sex? Their situation remains unresolved, but the comic interlude is complete.

Two other stores are set in India, with a multicultural cast. “Il Negro” casts an Italian antique shop owner, Milo, with his Hindu assistants, Arun and Ganesh. Here the comedy centers on a mechanical bank in the shape of an African-American and bearing the inscription “1882, Toledo Ohio, Jolly Nigger.” Milo sees the bank as a fellow sufferer and refuses to sell it. Arun sees it as a rare collectible, “top dollar.” And Ganesh sees the grotesque, animated figure as an idol, like the gods of the Hindu pantheon.

“The Indian Friend” features a group of Americans at lunch. “Rajesh had brought them to a food stall in Old Delhi, where they served what Rajesh claimed to be the best makai ki roti in India.” Rajesh tells a story about temple monkeys that steal glasses from tourists, and Brian says heatedly: “This is exactly what happened to me.” When Marcus grabs the bill, he knocks down the waiter, which sends Antonia into hysterical laughter, which leads to a general collapse.

Kadetsky has traveled the world, as her author biography sets forth: Guatemala, Mexico, Malta, Spain, France, Morocco, Egypt, and India. She did some of this globe-trotting as a journalist, some as a “creative writing fellow.”  Some of the stories are set in New York City, so it seems that she has lived there, too. She is currently “assistant professor of fiction and nonfiction at Penn State University.” She has published a memoir and a novella, and her short stories are in literary magazines such as Antioch Review. “The first drafts of these stories accrued during a six-year period when I had the good fortune to complete 17 artists’ residencies and five writers conferences,” she says.

While Kadetsky possesses superhuman talent, the heroines in six of her stories have less to work with. Maria in “An Incident at the Plaza,” is confused about pregnancy and the street life that swirls around her in New York. She believes that she will abduct a toddler, and at the end, she tries. Cecile in “Loup Garou” starts a cross-country drive from Portland, Oregon in a creaky used car with her stoner boyfriend Morey. The two play a game in which they shed belongings, a game that leads to picking up a hitchhiker, who then steals the car. This is funny, but the title, which means “werewolf” in French, seems to have nothing to do with the story.

The young female war veteran in “Geography” has insomnia, imaginary fears, and real troubles. She has a boyfriend Freddy who gives her a globe, and she causes two male veterans in her therapy group to fight over her. But she ends the story as clueless as she starts, holding her globe. In “Men More than Mortal,” a New York bicycle messenger named Allison locks her Kryptonite chain around her waist, a “triple-heat-treated boron-manganese steel chain with a plastic-encased disk-keyhole padlock, seventy centimeters of four-sided steel chain links resistant to saws, hammers, files and bolt cutters,” then loses the key. She searches for a man who can unlock her, in all senses, but has no luck. Meanwhile she loses weight and becomes more attractive, she thinks. Or do men simply take advantage of her?

“Dermagraphia” is the longest story, at 36 pages. “What We Saw,” is also set in New York in the present, and both stories read like a novel drawn from the author’s life. They are dense, subtle, and slow-paced. Like the other stories, “Dermagraphia” has short passages of dialogue, so well done that I wish they were longer. It has nicely drawn characters, like the narrator Naomi’s feckless lover Hank and her willful Grandmaman. It has understated comedy in Naomi’s doddering parents. And it has a family dispute over inherited jewelry that is hard to follow.

Kadetsky’s stories are crammed with details, cultural and symbolic. In “Dermagraphia,” a white cat strays and reappears; a field has “mystical characteristics;” and Naomi fingers her pearls and a gold watch. The title refers to her “still-in-progress first book, which my tenure depends on. The book is on dermagraphia . . . a nervous condition in which one’s skin becomes hypersensitive to all stimuli and erupts in raised red patches at the slightest touch.” Naomi, naturally enough, gets dermagraphia. Or does she? “My case was different. My skin was trying to let something out. There was too much to say.”

Robert Boucheron


One response to “The Poison that Purifies You by Elizabeth Kadetsky (reviewed by Robert Boucheron)

  1. Just to judge from your review, the stories in this volume seem very complex, and not as literary as they are plot-driven, though I can’t speak from the direct experience of them, not having read them. Is there, do you think, an overall thematic content separate from the quote about water being poison and poison being water, and etc.?


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