In Mitchell Waldman's story collection Petty Offenses & Crimes of the Heart (Wind Publications, 2011, ISBN: 978-1-936138-36-4) at the end of the story “Bad Neighborhood,” the narrator asks, “Is there any place safe to go?,” and after reading the book you will feel the same. Waldman’s stories present characters ranging from the descendants of Holocaust survivors to small time thieves to distraught lovers, and while there is pain in these stories, there is always the possibility of redemption.
“The Nazi Next Door,” the collection’s opening story, sets the tone of personal turmoil that all of the stories’ protagonists possess. The story is narrated by Rich whose neighbor Borglund one day over the fence tells Rich that his father had collaborated with the Nazis in Holland. This admission causes Rich to have nightmares of storm troopers coming to take his ancestors to concentration camps. To express his anger, Rich begins leaving anonymous packages in front of Borglund’s door. The first package is filled with cat droppings, the second dead goldfish, and the last has broken glass. The narrator’s nightmares continue and force him into nightly walks, and on one of these walks the narrator runs into Borglund, who invites him in for a drink. In the upstairs room where they drink, Rich sees his “packages” lying around and the scene slowly reveals that Borglund knows that it is Rich leaving them in front of his house. This revelation allows both men to speak freely yet heatedly; their conversation, however, does not build into an argument. Instead, we see the human side of Borglund, who confesses that what he saw as a child in Holland was horrific, and his nightmares also have yet to stop. After their discussion, Rich has one more nightmare, but Borglund enters it, ordering the Nazis out.
In the collection’s opening story, Waldman does a good job of not making Rich and Borglund into the shallow dichotomy of “good” guy and “bad” guy. Life, as we know, is not that simple, and neither are these characters. Furthermore, the remainder of these stories are not simple.
“Missing Pieces” is the story of Tommy Morton, a burgeoning house thief who awakes on “an otherwise ordinary morning in July...to find his left hand missing. He could still pinch it and feel it, but it was invisible.” The opening has echoes of Kafka and as we spend time with Tommy, we learn that while his introduction is similar to Gregor, as a character he resembles one out of Raymond Carver's universe: down on his luck, a bit of a mama's boy, and he’s the low-man in his uncle’s gang of thieves. On his first job, Tommy shoots a kid in the hand and the guilt for doing so is what makes his hand invisible. After another robbery, his left leg becomes invisible to him. Tommy lives in a personal hell that only worsens as he takes out his frustrations on his girlfriend Gloria. Unhappy with his life—lying to his mother about his job and dissatisfied with his cut of the gang's take—Tommy and Gloria split up and later she goes to his place to try and reconcile their relationship. On this visit Tommy rapes her and awakens the next day to find his genitalia missing. This scene is the climax of the story and Tommy's pitiful life, for in the story's final section he is found streaking through the city streets with only a sock and glove on his “invisible” body parts.
Waldman’s portrayal of Tommy balances sympathy and disgust for the character. As a reader, I sympathize with Tommy until he rapes Gloria, but at the end of the story when he is incommunicative and placed in an asylum, a small part of my heart is tugged at. Waldman’s skill is in having the reader think that with more time and assistance, Tommy, despite his shortcomings, could have possibly turned around his life.
William Faulkner said that an author’s job is to make the extraordinary seem ordinary and to make the ordinary seem extraordinary, and in Petty Offenses & Crimes of the Heart this is what Waldman accomplishes. While reading the stories you may wonder “Is there any place safe to go?,” but you will be glad that you spent time in Waldman’s world.
Reviewed by Hardy Jones