This review was originally published on Pol Culture.
A remarkable aspect of fiction is its ability to captivate us with the lives of people we otherwise wouldn't have anything to do with. Andrea, the protagonist of Kevin Moffett's 2006 short story "Tattooizm," is an aimless 19-year-old slacker living in a beachfront Florida town in what appears to be the mid-to-late 1970s. Apart from her boyfriend Dixon, a 24-year-old aspiring tattoo artist, she has no real ambitions or interests, and that relationship has lost its appeal for her as well. The only thing holding them together is sex, which annoys her--she wonders if it is "turning her into a dull and contented cow." She looks forward to classes at the local community college that fall, but she's more engaged by her idealized notions of being a student than any interest in the work it entails. Aside from sex, the only thing she gets active enjoyment out of is yelling "Cajun" at the local drifters when the car she's in goes by them. The irony is that her attitude towards life isn't far removed from theirs--it's the same mindset at an earlier age. The wonder of "Tattooizm" is Moffett's ability to create such a compelling character study from such a dull, empty life. From the story's opening paragraph to its epiphanic conclusion, it is nothing less than captivating.
The conflict that drives the story is Andrea's resistance to Dixon giving her a tattoo. Dixon is, in some ways, just as much an overgrown baby as Andrea, but unlike her, he's not apathetic. He is engaged with life, but he's a fool--destined to be confounded in everything he does. He's the sort who will convince himself that driving the speed limit will mean his never having to stop at a red light, and he holds to that no matter how often it's demonstrated he's wrong. As for the tattoo, he sees it as a sacrament between him and Andrea; her assent to it would be a way of saying that, no matter what, a part of him would always be with her. It's permanent; it's a commitment. And Andrea, whose thoughts are inevitably daydreams to take her mind off the present, keeps putting him off. The only thing she wants of Dixon in the future is some clever way of describing him to friends and boyfriends down the road. She'll look back on him fondly, but with the affection she'd have for "an old toy or a book that she read in bed when she was sick." Moffett carefully builds the tension in Andrea's attitude towards Dixon over the course of the story, and it's not giving away too much to reveal that she does finally agree to the tattoo. The surprise is in the tattoo Dixon chooses to give her. He turns out to be not quite as big an amiably headstrong dope as he originally seemed, at least as far as Andrea is concerned. He fully understands her attitude towards him, and the tattoo reflects this. It's something she can choose to acknowledge or not acknowledge forever; no one will know unless she goes out of her way to tell them, and even then they might not believe her. It's permanent, but it only requires the commitment she's willing to give it.
What makes the story work is Moffett's effective shuttling between his development of Andrea's view of Dixon and his treatment of every other aspect of her life. The Dixon passages are the foundation, with the others like momentary departures from a melody that are terrific music in their own right. We see the fun she has with her younger brother while baby-sitting him, her looking back on her friends and boyfriend from high school, her fantasies about school in the fall. Moffett's pacing is immaculate. He never dwells on anything too long, and his rendering of the scenes and Andrea's musings are both concise and fluid. It's hard to imagine he has a high opinion of his protagonist, but his tone is so breezy that one never catchs him making a judgment. He demonstrates that no character is too insignificant for a capable writer; one just needs to give everything its proper development and weight.
"Tattooizm," by Kevin Moffett, is featured in The Best American Short Stories 2006.