‘Drinking Coffee Elsewhere’ by ZZ Packer

“Sharp episodic phases of people” is a good description of this beautiful tale, the title story in ZZ Packer’s only collection to date, and which I came to through a 2018 episode of Backlisted in which Nikesh Shukla had chosen it as the main book. All eight stories are knockouts, but this one stayed with me because it manages the seamless movement from humour to pathos: one of the hardest literary transitions of all. Dina is a black A-student from Baltimore in her first year at Yale. A flip remark during an orientation game gains her a year’s worth of psychiatric counselling, she withdraws into her room, until Heidi, a white girl “dressed like an aspiring plumber” ends up sobbing at her door. Their friendship crackles with repartee and slowly deepens: they sleep together but don’t have sex. In the stories central set-piece, they strip and hose one another down in the dish room at the college dining hall they have just cleaned. Dina recognises her love for Heidi in that moment: “I sprayed her and sprayed her, and she turned over and over like a large, beautiful dolphin, lolling about in the sun”. This briefly promises to dissolve all the tensions of race, class, sexual orientation and body-consciousness that threaten them, but we know it can’t last. It isn’t until near the end of the story, when Heidi has come out as queer and Dina has let her down, that we see where Packer is taking us. Dina imagines them meeting again and consoles herself with the thought that: “In that future time… your words can always be rewound and erased, rewritten and revised.” Except they can’t, save in stories, of course. Which is why we write them and why we read them. I really hope ZZ Packer writes more.

First published in The New Yorker, June 11 2000, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, Riverhead Books, 2003

‘Drinking Coffee Elsewhere’ by ZZ Packer

It was hard to pick one from this legendary collection – I shuffled between a few before settling, as I’d known I would, on the title story, ‘Drinking Coffee Elsewhere’. This must be one of the best college stories in existence; like I said about Munro, what gets me here is the emotional truth of it. Newly arrived at Yale, Dina says, “if I had to be any object, I guess I’d be a revolver,” an excellent comment from any narrator, which also wins her a year’s worth of psychiatric counselling. She becomes close to another student, and although the friendship ends badly, its growth and unravelling are brilliantly written. It’s been over twenty years since it came out and I still remember the scene of Dina spraying her friend with the squirt gun she uses as a dining hall dishwasher, and what Dina realises in that moment. I still love the image, too, of her friend Heidi soaked in water, in the canteen after hours, “turned over and over like a large beautiful dolphin, lolling about in the sun.”  

First published in The New Yorker, June 200, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, Riverhead/Canongate, 2003

‘Drinking Coffee Elsewhere’ by ZZ Packer

This is one of the short story collections I go back to when I forget how to write. The title story is also a story I love to teach — it is at once an exemplary example of the contemporary realist short story genre and completely Packer’s own. It also charts a cringingly awkward and ambiguous queer relationship. 

First published in The New Yorker, June 2000. Collected in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, Riverhead, 2003/Canongate, 2004

‘Brownies’ by ZZ Packer

Another story about horrible children.

I first read ‘Brownies’ circa 2004 and at the time thought it was an efficient piece of creative writing, literary, circumscribed, American. But when, at the behest of Nikesh Shukla, we did ZZ Packer’s collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere on Backlisted last year I found I couldn’t get this particular story out of my head, and still can’t. No one appears to have tampered with my copy of the book so it must be the same story I read then. Gosh.

We don’t just change as readers as we get older, we improve.

If you haven’t read ‘Brownies’, you need to read it; also if you have read it.

First published in Harper’s Magazine, November 1999 and in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, Riverhead Books, 2003

‘The Ant of the Self’ by ZZ Packer

All the stories in ZZ Packer’s debut collection, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, are mesmerising. In this one, a teenage boy is dragged along to the Million Man March — 1995’s gathering of African-American men in Washington, D.C. – by his self-absorbed and reckless father. Along the way, they stop in Indiana to pick up some macaw parrots, which the father plans to sell during the march. The father’s sometimes girlfriend, Lupita, has looked after (and grown fond of) the birds. “You are never thinking about what Lupita feels!” the girlfriend shouts, as they take the macaws. The boy thinks she’s going to come after him and his father when they take the birds, “but all she does is plop down on her porch step, holding her head in her hands.” And so the men continue on to DC, with the macaws echoing phrases they have learnt. When the boy is let down by his father again and sits alone in a DC train station, he watches another father and his son who have come to the march: a man who treats his toddler son with playful tenderness.

From Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (Riverhead Books), originally appeared in The New Yorker, November 25, 2002 and available online here