Performing California: Small in Real Life by Kelly Sather, A Review by Allison Wyss

Kelly Sather’s debut story collection, Small in Real Life, is reflective sunglasses, the smack of flip flops, stardom that is out of reach. The characters include makeup artists, paparazzi, and script girls. Surfaces glitter and deceive. It’s Southern California. And even in its insistence—especially in its insistence—on examining the shallow and petty, it goes deep and gets weird in a very good way. 

The first story, “Spaniard,” pits a teenager against her mother. Jenny has sniffed out some adultery and thinks she might wrangle a car out of it. But her mother won’t be blackmailed. The girl’s rage is immature, but shimmering. “Jenny swayed in the hammock and listened to her father whistling at the barbecue. She hated her mother. She hated her mother enough to forget that it was only a car.”

We shift, quickly, into the time that comes after: a family that is hollowed. We feel the consequences of a betrayal that is as much Jenny’s as her mother’s. And the father—innocent, we assume—the one with the twinkling eye and love of rollercoasters, the one waiting for a joke—has turned generic. Just your average divorced dad, going through the motions. He’s still in Jenny’s life, but the sparkle is gone. 

After we register Jenny’s regret, we shift back to the pivotal moment, right before she tells her father. The story ends with the words on the tip of Jenny’s tongue, as if she might stop herself. We already know she won’t. We’re left forever in the moment a bad decision is made, trapped in wishing we could stop it.

And so this first story teaches me—brutally—how to read the collection. This book isn’t about safety or redemption but about the willful and heart wrenching ways people wreck their own lives.

Teenage rebellion features again in “Red Bluff.” Two girls escape summer camp, pretending bravery and worldliness beyond their grasp: 

When they reached the sign, Camp Weyamucca—Gem of the California Sierras, Barratt aimed the flashlight at her hand signal, “okay.” She meant they could speak. They stood along a narrow dirt road.

“Are we doing this?” Tessa said.

“We did it,” Barrett said, her eyes glossy in the flashlight’s shine.

They hitch a ride from a stranger, also a kid, who is performing something similar but at a more dangerous register. So many performances, but who is fooling who? These kids are in over their heads, but they’d have to drop the act to admit it, and when you’re an angry and desperate teenager, that’s the last thing you’d ever do.

To extend the deep-water metaphor, what do any of us do when we’re drowning? We thrash and kick and punch. We pull down the poor sucker trying to save us. Sather doesn’t rescue her characters. And those poor suckers that tried? They drown too.

So what’s California about all this? I think’s in the performance. 

The rage of a teenager is understandable, the frustration, the thwarted rebellion. Unless we’re so old we’ve forgotten, we know precisely why they lash out. But the same mentality appears in older characters too. They are performing just as hard—often harder. After all, maturity can only be performance, but adults are expected to actually fool you. 

In “Harmony,” Paul is a middle-aged photographer and it’s not his first stint in rehab. But it’s not worth hoping this one will take, not really. We learn that his addiction is not only to pills and booze, but to betrayal, and an obsession with trading up. He’s also hoping to spy on celebrities and sell their pictures to the tabloids. One of the celebrities becomes a friend, maybe. But we know what will happen. It’s ok, the new friend would (and does) betray him too. Sincerity is for the weak. Friendships are only what you can trade them for.

The characters of Small in Real Life consistently betray each other in horrible ways. 

In the gorgeous and devastating “Handbag Parade,” Stephanie not only steals from her dying friend, she lets the home nurse take the blame. Like those teenagers, Stephanie is angry, desperate, and in over her head. In weekly visits, she performs cheer, performs stardom, performs the life they’d all hoped to attain. She even catwalks. But it doesn’t get her anything like what they’re pretending. Lashing out at cancer makes sense, but it’s not disease that suffers. It’s your best friend, a random bystander, and also yourself.

Sather uses heartbreak, panic, and fear to push her characters past their performances and give a glimpse, however fleeting, at what is beneath. When do we see the human being behind the role in a stage play? When they fuck up, of course. And once one line is flubbed—through panic, through fear—anyone on stage might accidentally reveal a more authentic self.

But it’s not as simple as that, either. These characters aren’t hiding a true self—they’re hiding the unspeakable fear that they might not have one, that underneath the act, there is only void. 

Since sincerity is out of bounds for these characters, vulnerability is revealed through reckless and selfish acts. And I get it. This world is terrible and these characters must lash out. But who can they reach? Not the people in charge or the systems responsible for their grief, not the diseases killing their friends, or their own addiction. So they hurt the wrong people and destroy their own chance at a smaller happiness. They suffer. And worse, their suffering is primarily—and achingly—their own fault. 

Human connection is particularly risky when you can’t reveal—or perhaps can’t find—who you really are. It does still happen, but in ways that are skewed.

In “God’s Work,” a judge is tricked into a date with a makeup artist. He sees her and also refuses to, warning the reader not to look to too deep either:

An artist living in a bungalow in Pasadena, he thought, but she wasn’t. She wore a low-cut sweater the color of peach sherbet. It showed off her sunspotted chest, and he didn’t look further. Her bright gold hair was pinned back on each side with barrettes, and orange feather and bead earrings dangled from her ears. Morrison drew his eyes back to her round face and watched a clump of blue mascara stuck on her right eyelash.

She leaned across the table toward Morrison and paused like she might confess a secret. Flirting. He tried to discern her intentions: Some imagined happily ever after or simply a free dinner. Either way, he didn’t trust her. She may have possessed wisdom beneath her years, but so did he.

The judge is wrong about the makeup artist. She wants something else, not happy-ever-after but to confess a deadly crime. She’ll disappear tomorrow, but for one dark night, she’ll tell the truth. It’s not him she wants, but his robes, his role. This, the judge understands.  

Again and again, human connection is brief, transactional, or not how you wanted it. It’s these masks, these roles, these performances that keep getting in the way.

Even when characters take vacations, their mentality is Hollywood. In “Venice,” a teenage girl trades her flip flops for leather sandals, but my do they chafe. This is another story in which connection is sought, but it manifests in a sexual encounter that is sloppy and embarrassing. The story ends with the girl’s disillusionment. But my imagination takes it further. Considering this girl and the world in which she lives, it will surely be easier for her to stay in character, to reimagine what happened, smoothing over the details that don’t fit the role she’s chosen for herself and the more satisfying tryst she had scripted. 

It’s not shallow; it’s survival. 

These characters aren’t acting for each other, at least not exclusively, but for themselves. They’re fumbling to find what is underneath, even as they hide it so desperately. But does there need to be an underneath? Can’t our real self be the performance we choose? 

In the second to last story, “Toucan,” there is, finally, a finding of self. It comes about through a forbidden act, a lashing out, “If she was learning anything in sleeping with her dead ex-best friend’s ex-boyfriend, it was something about the physical at the expense of everything else.”

The character is pushing back at a deeper understanding of herself, but it finds her a few breaths later, “She thought that until this moment she hadn’t felt herself clearly since childhood, since before she could remember she had been looking at herself from a distance.” 

Notice the word, “felt,” and how that relates to these performances. It’s not about being who you are, but feeling it. I don’t think it’s quite the point, as Carrie claims, that we reach our truest self in the physical. Rather, it’s the searching itself that becomes what we’re looking for. Performing is how the characters search. They’re trying on identities like flip flops, seeing how they fit.

This story ends with Carrie’s feet in California, but she is studying a picture and reliving a moment far away:

The snow was three or four inches thick at most, but it looked luxurious. Carrie and Lulu had pink cheeks and bits of white in their hair. They had just carved angels on the lawn, flying their arms and legs across the snow as they stared up into a blue sky. Carrie remembered the cold on her back, the carelessness of lying on the lawn in the middle of winter. 

If home is where you have to pretend, this longing for another place, another time, becomes emblematic of a search for something deeper.

The collection ends with something like a Flannery O’Conner note of redemption through murder. But in Sather’s version, the character doesn’t find god or goodness in his final moments. Instead, he becomes vulnerable, his mask drops, and he is more fully himself.

Did I say earlier that sincerity is out of bounds? I think maybe it is. But behind their California sunglasses, the characters in Small in Real Life still ache for it. They are thwarted in their efforts—even punished for those efforts—but they continue to search. They seek so desperately that they lash out–at anyone in their way, but most brutally against themselves. Authenticity is both buried beneath their performances and also, ironically, tied up in them. 

These stories are cynical, but they’re tender too. Underneath each mask, each role, each shifting performance is a person flailing. Through each character’s desperate and reckless acts, we get a glimpse of heart. Or else if it’s too painful, Sather uses those acts to draw the aching shape of it, in their resistance.

Allison Wyss is the author of the short story collection, Splendid Anatomies (Veliz Books), which was a finalist for the 2022 Shirley Jackson Award. Her stories and essays have appeared in Alaska Quarterly ReviewCincinnati ReviewWater~Stone ReviewLit Hub and elsewhere. Some of her ideas about the craft of fiction can be found in “Reading Like a Writer,” a monthly column she writes for the Loft Literary Center, where she also teaches classes.