A Complicated Heart

by Jaclyn Trop
You Are My Heart and Other Stories
By Jay Neugeboren
Two Dollar Radio
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You Are My Heart and Other Stories by Jay Neugeboren

A father dreams of killing his infant son. A 1950s Brooklyn teenager caves into parental pressures over his love life. A man succeeds at murder-suicide.

You Are My Heart and Other Stories, the fourth short story collection by Jay Neugeboren ’59CC, has a complicated heart: The villains are sympathetic and the heroes aren’t always heroic. The stories, rooted in the reflections of middle-aged male protagonists, focus on marriage, nostalgia, and the complexities of relationships, and are often set against the backdrop of modern American warfare — World War II, Vietnam, and Iraq.

The collection, which is the 17th book by the Brooklyn-born author, is bracketed by a pair of novellas, two heartrending coming-of-age stories written in the first person. The first, “You Are My Heart,” sets the tone. The narrator, Alan, is a college-bound senior at a Brooklyn public school in 1953. He feels at home as the only white person to sing in the choir at the Barton African Methodist Episcopal Church, the church attended by his best friend and his best friend’s sister, whom he begins dating in secret. The young, interracial lovers “duck into doorways to kiss, and sometimes we’d find a car with its door unlocked and would climb in and make out in the back seat.” But Alan’s parents can’t accept the relationship and, in the end, neither can Alan.

In “A Missing Year: Letter to My Son,” a man reflects on the days after his wife walked out on their young family. He describes to his son, Charlie, how he wanted to act out on his feelings of grief and hopelessness. For a year, he says, he was obsessed with the idea of killing Charlie and then himself, taking pleasure in the “possibility of leaving this world, and taking you with me.”

The fallibility of memory and the sadness of dreams unfulfilled consume Neugeboren’s characters. “The Debt” concerns a pair of lovers who met during an antiwar demonstration at Columbia. She’s a regal-looking, working-class Irish law student, and he’s a Brooklyn-born Jewish student of literature. They split up after three years and a shadowy abortion, and reunite decades later to find that the past is an unreliable shadow of the present.

In “The Turetzky Trio,” an American named Paul has a chance encounter at a café in France with the cellist he and his wife have tickets to see. The cellist seduces Paul in a single afternoon and dismisses him with a world-weary wave. “What we had was wonderful,” she tells him. “Now it’s over, and we must be practical. I will think of you often, and with great kindness.”

The stories are beautifully written, and Neugebroen’s characters are utterly human, unable to suppress their darkest urges. The collection concludes with the novella “Lakewood, New Jersey,” in which a grandfather recalls being a 25-year-old schoolteacher at a private academy in a New Jersey suburb. There, he is seduced by the school’s imperious headmistress, who crushes his dreams with a single, inexplicable sentence.

So it ends for most of Neugeboren’s heroes, abruptly and with unmet hopes, just like real life.

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