‘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