I read Joe Baumann’s debut, Sing With Me at the Edge of Paradise, slowly. There is so much to absorb in this short story collection, from the boy with glowing hands at the rodeo who can see others with glowing hands, too, to the couple who pushes each other out of their bedroom window right before doing the dirty, to a world where people undergo a procedure to grow produce on their own bodies — I went slowly because I didn’t want a story to end after I started, and once it did, I felt like I needed to lie down from the emotional and existential weight of what I’d just read.
Set in worlds both fantastic and mundane and led by relatable characters who are brave, unsure, lonely, hopeful, Sing With Me at the Edge of Paradise is a short story collection infused with wonder at the secrets of both the world and its people. For such a deep, reflective collection, it also felt very approachable and fun to read. Many of the stories have a general focus on relationships and coming of age, and a good chunk of the stories have some sort of distinct element of magical realism in the setting which makes each new story feel fresh, even without a fantasy element.
The collection is also distinct in that while featuring queer characters in every story, it doesn’t hone in on strictly queer storylines. In an interview with Texas Tech University Press, Baumann stated that he subconsciously writes of queer characters into his stories, and that “while [he] thinks stories that are about discovering queerness and centering it are important, they’re not as much what [he] often writes anymore. By that [he] mean[s] that characters being queer is now often simply a part of who they are, not the central thrust of the story.”
A great example of this is “Spin the Dial,” which centers on Nathan, who has decided to give up his left hand (and playing the flute) for a year starting on his sixteenth birthday. This is something all sixteen-year-olds do in this version of the world — Nathan’s mother gave up an eye, his father his voice, and most recently, his schoolmate, Eli, gave up a whole leg in order to get out of playing soccer. Nathan and Eli are clearly more than friends, and Eli’s decision consequently influenced Nathan’s because of it, but this queer relationship, while an important element in the story, is only a small part of it. The crux of it is Nathan’s internal desire to see what else he can be good at, as well as how this decision seems to strain his relationship with his parents.
In addition to being just one example of the way Baumann approaches queerness in his stories, “Spin the Dial” also provides a taste of how he uses magical realism to highlight and deepen the inner conflict of his characters. The narrator in “Melt With You” is delighted to learn that his boyfriend Hugh slips into walls when he’s bored, but the concept quickly turns sour when he considers how Hugh may use his power to spy on or avoid him. After the strange, ongoing disappearance of whole buildings from the face of the earth in “Where We Go After,” our narrator is forced by his boyfriend to visit the places where they used to live and, consequently, to contemplate a past in which his sister, Sylvia, felt out of place in his childhood home.
Even without having to give up a body part for a year or the power to hide in the walls or the ability to read someone’s mind, Baumann’s characters are highly relatable in their hopefulness, their insecurity, and their isolation. Stories are often told in first-person perspective and narrators are often nameless, making it easier to put yourself in the story. It was delightful to be the nosy, judgmental neighbors in “Give Us Your Pity, Give Us Your Love” and “What You Have Always Wanted” and bittersweet to feel the loss of connection between lovers in “Close the Door on This Laughing Heart” and “Churchgoing.”
In its magnitude of emotion and its many versions of what the world could be, Baumann’s collection is a true wonder. No matter where you find yourself in “Sing With Me at the Edge of Paradise,” know you’ll be in for a story that’ll leave you breathless at the end of it.
Sing With Me at the Edge of Paradise
By Joe Baumann
Texas Tech University Press
Published February 15, 2023