The Smallest People Alive
The danger of a well-schooled, intelligent writer focusing on uneducated, often retarded or brain-damaged characters, is that he will condescend to, and trivialize them. Perhaps because of his own experience as a social worker for people with disabilities, Keith Banner manages to avoid that hazard; however, he is not always so successful at making the characters compelling. The problem in The Smallest People Alive is that Banner always makes a central character in his stories the point of view, and it is frequently difficult for the reader to identify with the simplicity of the speaker’s desires, thoughts, and language. The title story, which was chosen for the Prize Stories 2000: The O. Henry Awards, is the most successful mainly because the narrator, as he tries to express his love for a boyhood friend who has become brain-damaged by a suicide attempt, is the most complex character in the book.
Although the “smallest people” specifically refers to premature infants in the title story, more generally it refers to all of Banner’s rural, not-very-bright, overweight, low-income, midwest, homosexual outsiders previously invisible in San Francisco-style gay fiction. Some of these stories seem merely brief stylistic exercises, but the most developed range from a poignant love story, “The Wedding of Tom to Tom,” about two institutionalized retarded men obsessed with each who are given a secret wedding in a garage, to the troubling “Holding Hands for Safety,” about an overweight man whose cousin has murdered his ten-year-old retarded sister in a mindless act of violence that only makes him more irresistible. Banner takes a risk here in making gay men so dysfunctional and unappealing. One can only wish that at least he had made his narrators more complex and compelling.