by Briana Weeger
Eleanor Levine’s collection of short stories Kissing a Tree Surgeon takes readers on a hilariously offbeat journey amidst an equally offbeat cast of characters. A woman takes her dead grandmother to a Bertolucci film in order to flirt with the popcorn attendant. A student with multiple personalities, including a “Jewish/nun/assistant endocrinologist; Jesuit fighter on behalf of the PLO; anti-Catholic dirt bomb activist; and Ayn Rand’s protégé,” attends Sister Jewniversity, “a bastion of anti-Semitic-anti-Zionist lesbianism.” And a man who thinks he is the love child of Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra is an unhinged AA sponsor.
One such unorthodox character is Agatha Ravine, who makes repeat appearances as the narrator of many of Levine’s stories. Set against a New Jersey backdrop, Agatha is a misfit. She is a self-described social outcast who often has crushes on girls who were cheerleaders in high school, blonde shiksas, while she is more like the “protagonist in one of William Burroughs’s heroin runs.” And as she navigates both real and imagined adventures with an intelligent, sardonic wit, Agatha embodies the impulsive id we all have and at times wish we could let take the wheel.
In the title story, “Kissing a Tree Surgeon,” Agatha is not invited to her friend Julie’s wedding. She thought it was because she had “made anti-Julie’s-boyfriend presents and gave them to her, in front of him.” But she comes to find out the real incident that infuriated her friend was when she kissed the tree surgeon. “Julie is drunk, and speechless, when she sees me making out with her old boyfriend Andrew’s best friend—a tree surgeon who lives in Rye, New York. We are at Andrew’s party where beer is on tap and hormones whir like gnats.”
Agatha and other narrators reflecting on these kinds of past predicaments is a common thread that weaves through Levine’s stories. They look back on days where teenage transgressions felt like fatal blows and the raw newness of experience made lasting marks.
In “The Boy Who Used the Curling Iron,” Agatha thinks about her ex-girlfriend Emily through the lens of their Senior Farewell dance. While Agatha received rejections, “Emily had the opposite problem. All the boys wanted her. She couldn’t keep the young males away—they were ringing her pink Cinderella phone like it was the Jerry Lewis muscular dystrophy telethon.”
But Agatha and Emily eventually found each other and “rambled in each other’s brain like circuitous routes traveling undirected until she decided that my emotions were more in need of her than me. I’m like that sneaker hanging on the telephone line that looks inviting at first, but after five months is an eyesore.”
Often under the microscope are humorous descriptions of love and relationships gone wrong. Levine satirically depicts her narrators’ search for belonging and exposes an array of connection misfires and the thin borders that we feel separate us from others. Agatha’s ex Emily
“took ballet lessons in Manhattan and got drunk in an Irish pub with Bobby Sherman’s niece,” while she “took public school violin lessons and played kickball in the street.”
And a woman who searches for love via OkCupid is duped:
‘I’m not able to sleep at night,’ Vivian via Wisconsin via Amsterdam texted me.
‘Oh boy,’ I replied, feeling the pangs and intimacies of love through the iPhone, ‘I wish there was something I could do.’
‘There is …’
‘What dear? How may I give you greater comfort in the evening?’ I had already checked out the Priceline.com tickets for Madison, Wisconsin, which were slightly cheaper than Amsterdam. There was a brief pause. She wrote back.
In many stories involving the pitfalls of dating, Levine blurs the lines of reality and surreality, so the reader’s focus lies on the importance of what was felt over what actually occurred. A woman is haunted and shunned by the dead relatives of her ex-girlfriends, characters argue over spaghetti and a lost dog at the end of the world, and a girl falls in love with a turtle who won’t text her back.
Levine’s unique voice catches you off guard and takes you on a wild journey you didn’t know you needed. Ultimately, Kissing a Tree Surgeon is a collection of stories about belonging. And in a time where feeling like an outsider amidst a surrealist landscape is common, Levine reminds us to laugh about it.
Briana Weeger is a native of Southern California and is currently an MFA student in the low-residency program at UC Riverside. An alumna of UCLA and Brooklyn College, Briana works with underserved and immigrant youth using story crafting and storytelling as a means of self-discovery and empowerment. In her own writing practice, she is exploring the impact of often overlooked social customs with a mix of both fiction and non-fiction.