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New Yorker Fiction Review: "Breadman" by J. Robert Lennon

Issue: Jan. 19, 2015

Story: "Breadman"

Author: J. Robert Lennon

Rating: $

Review: Imagine a short story about the "Soup Nazi" from Seinfeld, only pretend the story is about a mobile bread baker/merchant and that the story takes place on the fringes of a gentrifying neighborhood in a small- to mid-sized city instead of New York. Imagine, also, that instead of Jerry Seinfeld, your protagonist is a neurotic (wait...), mealy-mouthed, over-worked, under-loved corporate everyman who is on the down-slope of a marriage and doesn't realize it or rather is trying not to realize it.

Imagine also that, under the best of circumstances, this man's encounters with the blissed-out, unshaven, bread-selling, sandal-wearing bohemians are necessarily difficult and fraught with conflict. Imagine that, on this particular day, his interaction with the blissed-out, unshaven, bread-selling, sandal-wearing bohemians ends in him taking a swing at the Breadman, missing, and getting punched in the face himself. And that shortly after his marriage ends in divorce.

On one level, "Breadman" is a story about an awkward encounter between a tightly-wound bourgeois man and the hippies he buys bread from. It is a story about the weekly collision of two worlds, a collision which anyone can see first hand by going to a "farmer's market" in just about any urban area in the country. The well-off, conventional bourgeoisie mixing cutely with the farmers, artisans, and various off-the-grid types who are selling their wares. In and of itself not a particularly unusual or positively/negatively charged situation, but one that is ripe for funny encounters, like this one.

"J.R.L." as he's known on the streets.
On another level, "Breadman" is a story about a man who exists unhappily on the fringes of his own life. His wife is growing more distant. He looks upon the hippie bread sellers and most of their patrons with a haughty contempt laced with jealousy because they seem so much more relaxed and "in-touch" with themselves than he is. Rather than enjoy basking in the glow of that "in-touchness" it chafes against him. He hasn't yet connected the dots that his wife is becoming one of these "hippie-adjacent" types and that, far from scoffing at their world, she is becoming very much a part of it.

We never see or hear from the wife, other than from a few of her text messages, so we get all of the information about their marital conflict from the main character's head and his responses to her texts: "I hazarded another look at the text message. Could a five-digit number seem hostile? Yes, it could." This is a man completely out of touch with his partner and with his environment, and his interactions -- with his wife, with the bread-people -- all reflect this. And yet we get the impression that this man, this character, has lived and will live his entire life out of touch with his world; that the world seems destined to pass him by while he's gripping tighter and tighter to his neuroses.

While not the deepest or most groundbreaking or most richly layered story I've read, Lennon managed to set a very vivid scene in "Breadman," and one that is not easily forgotten, perhaps
because it is so familiar. The main character's discomfort with his surroundings and his discomfort within his own head are things we've all experienced and perhaps experience on a daily basis. The character is in a pitiable time and place in his life, but he himself is not pitiable; he is not without his pride and not with out his defenses. The last lines of the story re-enforce this and made me come away liking the character even more:

"Of course I can still eat bread. I'm not a child.
Of course I didn't learn to bake. I hate those people and everything they represent. 
Of course I'm not happy. Are you?
Well, good for you, then."

This guy will be fine, he just has to get the characters and components of his world right, which is what most of us "regular" people out here are trying to do as well.

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