The Maladjusted by Derek Hayes
Thistledown Press, 2011
There is nothing at all inherently unsatisfying about a story collection in which there is no overarching theme; I say this because I’m not trying to set up a comparison—it can be great fun, as a reader, to browse through a writer’s workbasket of assorted tricks and styles. To experience a sampling of their skill and focus. At the same time, a collection with a strong unifying premise can be a real pleasure, pushing the assembled stories along the literary spectrum toward something like a loosely structured novel. Derek Hayes’s The Maladjusted has this kind of dominant connective tissue—both aesthetic and thematic.
The book’s title, taken from the collection’s second story, is a quick and concise description of its theme. (Matched perfectly, it must be said, by the spare white cover with its line of marching ants, its stylized eye and the solitary insect who has struck off on his own.) These are stories of people on the margins—fragile, hurting, breaking or broken. Hayes isn’t only interested in extreme social misfits, luckily he is compassionately obsessed with the mildly neurotic as well, with people who are managing to keep up the appearance of normalcy despite their overwhelming anxieties, with men and women who venture constantly into dysfunctional territory but try their hardest not to gain permanent residency. What’s interesting about these shades of “maladjustment” is how often Hayes pits different levels of fragility side by side. It can be difficult to know for sure which character he is setting up as “the misfit.”
This happens in “A Good Decision,” for instance, a piece that meanders between two stories: that of the narrator and her married life, and that of two other teachers at the school where this narrator works. The connection between the two narratives is slender—our narrator places one man from each story parallel, to compare them, because they remind her of each other and she is trying to work out whether, years ago, she chose the right man as a lifetime partner. Scenes from the woman’s past are played against the present and awkward moments of emotional honesty, whether inadvertently divulged or deliberately revealed, are brought into play from each time period. The question the reader ends up pondering is: who, if anyone, has a real foot on stable ground here?
Hayes reforms that question with more universal implications in the collection’s titular piece. In this story, Mike, the first-person narrator, has withdrawn from “normal” society. He lives in an apartment, only going out at night, eating pizza for the first fifteen days of the month and then practically starving for the second half. When his social worker, Kim, pays him her weekly visit, he devises intricate mazes for her to scramble through to reach him wherever he might be hiding. There is something incredibly tender about this particular piece—perhaps it is Mike’s gentle mania, the way he stoically announces to everyone he meets, “I have a mental illness.” Or perhaps it is the idea, suggested quite subtly by Hayes, that his anxiety is something that’s been put upon him, is the fault of a flawed and aggressive world:
I read in the Globe and Mail a study about the sustainability of the earth. According to U.N. calculations, in order for the earth to sustain itself, each person can only inflict 300 units of damage to the earth in a year (many factors go into this). People in Bangladesh do the least harm, with each Bangladeshi averaging about 200 units. North Americans on the other hand average one thousand units.
He then goes on to detail his own impact, carefully listing the myriad small ways that he might rack up those “units of damage.” He gives himself a score of less than 200, and then finishes his monologue with this gem:
I haven’t hurt anyone’s feeling in three years. I’m exceedingly honest and polite. So, in other words, if the world were populated by six billions Mikes (me) — a Kantian thought experiment, a derivative of the categorical imperative that might be useful for anyone to try — there wouldn’t be any global warming, or war, or traffic accidents. Everyone would say hello to everyone else. There’d just be an abundance of needless worry and smothering anxiety.
This story, like a few of the others, ends on a note of delicate hope.
As a collection, these stories ask the reader to consider a person’s awkward ways and unacceptable behaviors—from the aging immigrant working as an aide in a public school classroom to an otherwise “normal” young man obsessed with his girlfriend’s facial hair. Obsession is a key word for the cadre of voices and personalities in The Maladjusted, obsession and self-esteem, as each of these people overthink and worry themselves about both small and big issues of daily life. There is definitely charm in this fixation, a revelation of the quirks that make us human. At the same time, Hayes makes it clear, in “Maybe You Should Get Back Here,” or “A Wonderful Holiday,” that his characters suffer for their anxieties, and that people often turn away from their graceless behaviors to judge or pity them.
Despite the seriousness of the collection’s thematic concern, many of the stories in The Maladjusted are laced with a quiet irony, a subtle wink in the reader’s direction. Otherwise Hayes’s style is straightforward and competent. Aside from a somewhat frustrating tendency in his 3rd person stories to directly present his character’s thoughts in italics, something that is probably meant to highlight their neurotic thinking but reads a tad too melodramatic on the page, he is thorough with description and his first person narrators are distinct and energetic. Aside from that, he is also skilled with writing “sports dialect,” and several of the pieces are infused with a wonderful energy as he puts this language in use:
Today is Sunday, a great afternoon for a run. Adrian is dribbling the ball on the wing, which is a mistake. I’m crowding him now, forcing him to the paint where Manny, a skinny seven-footer, can hedge and double-team. Only thing is—Manny’s a no show. Adrian springs off two feet and thunders down a one-handed dunk.
It would be going too far to describe The Maladjusted as a novel in stories—there is no link between any of the various characters and settings, no narrative continuity from story to story except a similar prose style. Several of these stories are even set in foreign countries (and Hayes has great feeling for the expat experience.). And yet these sixteen stories work together as a cohesive mosaic illustrating a single idea. The collection as a whole is a dogged yet benevolent exploration of the idea that the boundary line between coping and not coping with “normal social environments” is not a vast and easily recognizable frontier, but a slender and unpredictable edge that most of us, if not all of us, are continually negotiating as best we can.