Dough or Die

Show Them a Good Time BY Nicole Flattery. New York: Bloomsbury. 256 pages. $15.
The cover of Show Them a Good Time

In Nicole Flattery’s recent story collection, Show Them a Good Time, precarity is a draining certainty. Unlike the protagonists in Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends or Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, in which precarity is expressed as youthful malaise, Flattery’s characters experience money problems as a potentially endless catastrophe. Originally from Mullingar, Flattery is part of a generation of Irish writers whose adult lives have been defined by austerity. The all-female protagonists in Show Them a Good Time are stuck in this boom-bust loop. Hometowns are not the safety net they once were, and cities are cold and unwelcoming. Still, there is nowhere else to go.

Flattery, whose stories have been compared to Lorrie Moore’s, depicts dead-end jobs and the grinding fear of poverty. While her style is jaunty and enlivening—Groucho Marx funny—her young women are even less hopeful than Moore’s. They’re held hostage by the economic machinery of their lives. “I feel every day . . . that I’m in the process of losing a long and complicated bet, one that will carry on for several years, where I will end up down a huge amount of money,” says one student when asked how she feels about college and, by extension, her future. “He had a way of looking me up and down like I was a CV full of errors and misspellings,” says a bored office worker when she’s hit on by her boss. Nihilistic, attracted to older men, and haunted by their mothers, these women are exhausted by a crushing contradiction: they’ve been saddled with high expectations but are offered only limited opportunities.

Anti-bourgeois in sentiment, Show Them a Good Time presents reality as a slow motion, cruel joke. Flattery’s brand of tragedy would feel unrelentingly bleak if not for the comic detachment with which her protagonists describe their abusive bosses, bad boyfriends, and very real grief. These women feel disposable and stuck in a demoralizing script, but at least they still get the best lines: “Her mind felt like a long trailer carrying a number of cars; if one car went they would all go, scatter across the motorway, cause carnage. She would miss her sanity when it went.”

None of the women have ambitious career aspirations—we are far from the stories of female empowerment that millennial women were raised on. In the title story, a young woman takes a job at a skill-enhancing “practice scheme” conducted in a bizarre garage. The scheme offers rehabilitation, or “the hope of a bright future, the hope of a high tax bracket,” for its participants. “The schemes were for people with plenty of time, or people not totally unfamiliar with being treated like shit,” she says, and performs duties such as arranging chairs for absent customers and sweeping the empty forecourt while receiving a manic thumbs-up from a woman referred to as “Management.” During a group circle with colleagues—“in my entire life, not a single good thing ever came from standing in a circle,” she observes—the young woman shares her sex-work experiences, for which she is shamed. Her coworkers think of her as a nonentity, and even when she destroys the plant she’s instructed to take care of, Management barely blinks. As she puts it: “The garage encouraged education—learning skills that would be transferrable to newer, better, positions—and in its own sterile way, it succeeded. I gained insights into my own personal habits that I could have gone decades quite happily never knowing about. This mental unravelling happened at no great speed. Even the catastrophe of my own life was something I managed with amazing slowness.” The story ends with her attempting to replace a lightbulb; she spends hours trying to find the perfect bulb and then falls off the ladder.

In “Abortion, a Love Story,” Natasha has an affair with an older male professor at an elite college. She skips classes, forgets what she is studying, and is told early on she’ll end up at the university’s gloomy “unemployment building.” Needless to say, she does not possess the entrepreneurial spirit that’s expected of her. She taunts the professor with her flirtatiousness as if she were methodically seducing a priest—or throwing bread at a starving duck—and tells him that in her childhood she was like “the roadrunner in that awful cartoon, constantly evading a terrible fate.” Her college life is much the same. But things start to look up (relatively speaking) when she meets Lucy, a student who sells nude photos to the professor and likes to shoplift “brands.” Their identities are blurred into “one fast and vicious animal,” and they soon dump the professor. Linked by recent abortions, which they barely talk about, Natasha and Lucy seek temporary emancipation from their university lives by putting on a play. Flattery dedicates twenty pages to a scene-by-scene description of the production, making “Abortion, a Love Story” the longest story in the collection. You get the sense that Flattery wrote it, Thelma & Louise–style, with her foot on the gas.

Beneath the one-liners and clever dark comedy, Show Me a Good Time shows real daring. “Abortion, a Love Story” intentionally takes things too far, pushing way past “plot” and “character” to arrive at something that feels violently new. Flattery’s depiction of precarity is not ornamental. It stretches and blisters the form of the stories themselves, leaving the reader laughing, crying, confused—and feeling understood.

NJ Stallard is a writer and editor. She lives in London.