Glimmer Train has never shied away from being topical, and “Hialeah” is about as topical as one can get in this political climate. But instead of modern Germany wringing its hands over accepting refugees, the story takes the reader back to a time where Nazi Germany was creating refugees. A boat of Jewish immigrants is stranded on the coastline of Miami due to Cuba invalidating their visas. Rabbi Max Hoffman travels from New York to meet with a refugee committee and decide how to handle the dilemma. The situation becomes so dire that the President of the Committee for a Jewish Army of Stateless and Palestinian Jews (PCJASPJ, as if that helps) suggests torpedoing the boat and ending the problem once and for all. Not only is he serious, but he’s the only person on the board who has a certain and concrete answer.
Thought it’s contemporary in its subject matter, “Hialeah”’s main thematic interest is entertainment. The story’s named after Hialeah Park and its dog racetrack. Brooks makes it clear when characters speak with bemusement about tough situations. Hoffman says that his hometown is “so dull that he had to import refugees to the town just to keep from going insane with boredom” (Brooks, 162). And after the first committee, Hoffman lies in bed and thinks “It’s rigged… these games are all rigged, and I’m sick of playing” (161). All of this builds up to a theme that ends up justifying one of the recurring problems I have with Glimmer Train.
In a fair amount of this magazine’s tales, the protagonists don’t have much influence over the story’s direction. “Walang Hiya, Brother,” “Speak to Me,” “Miss Me Forever” … whenever a story in this volume has a clear plot, the plot moves on without the main character’s input. Likewise, Hoffmann’s just a bystander even when his goal is to try to help. That’s the point, argues Brooks: it’s like how a football fan can’t influence the evening’s game even if he has front row seats. That’s where Hoffman’s stuck in the story, no matter how invested he is in the outcome. And you know who’s also being entertained while others play a game with people’s lives? You are. You, the person reading this story, are like Max: you can’t change the course of history, but you can read books to maybe one day “know what it felt like to live with such passionate certainty” (168). It’s not a message I entirely agree with; I’m sure the “you can’t change history” theme doesn’t ring as well with politicians or human rights activists; but it’s argued well, and the statement does apply to many people. There is something to be said about people who follow current events not to help others or change the world, but just score points in arguments for their personal political philosophy. Consider how many people talk about the presidential race, and then pay attention to how many people actually voted in the primaries. “Hialeah” provides a clever mixing of theme, character, and plot that makes me admire Brooks’ skill.
The short story’s main problem is lack of development, in spite of what I said about how much thought it spent on theme and subject matter. There’s no back-and-forth concerning the actual crisis: the only meeting the audience sees is the one where “maybe torpedo them” gets brought up. Most of the story consists of characters ambling around, with only the gambling visit at Hialeah Park as a significant detour. Hoffmann considers this committee “a rigged game,” but there’s gotta be someone who traveled hundreds of miles (in a time before highways) and actually gives a damn. Speaking of “game,” this talk of playing with people’s lives like it’s a dog race (and inadvertently comparing Jews to dogs) is… well, I don’t know how controversial that statement is, but I think the story should’ve at least looked into it. Also: I’m not sure how accurate “Hialeah” is to history, but there’s an Australian ambassador who says “Australia was grateful to have no existing racial problem.” Even if the ambassador is full of shit, that statement makes me question how much of the story is true to the past.
Kim Brooks has published work in Glimmer Train before, among other places. She has a MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and she also has a novel out. Ultimately, Brooks didn’t capitalize as much as she could on the central idea she had, which is why I admire “Hialeah” more than I enjoy it. But you writers out there could learn a thing or two by reading it.
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