Helen Ellis has built a literary career around charming humor, if charming is a euphemism for polite TMI. She presents as a sweet southern lady, but, bless your heart, she also talks about sex, kink, and all the things genteel housewives might find taboo. Her latest collection, Kiss Me in the Coral Lounge, doesn’t stray far from this formula, with the addition of more recent events like the global pandemic.
The new collection does discuss a few dildos, but it’s all less shocking now, not just because we’ve come to expect a certain amount of sex toys in Ellis’s writing, but it’s clear her tone has shifted too. Sure, Ellis discusses her husband’s erections and viagra prescription—a pandemic gift to them both, to paraphrase Ellis. However, the essays are overall more grounded, less striving to be outrageous. Perhaps because of the pandemic, they are darker too. She finds humor in death because she’s forced to.
Her previous essay collection Bring Your Baggage and Don’t Pack Light was published in the summer of 2021. It’s a book that was largely finished before the start of the pandemic. But this collection has had time to ruminate on isolation, a burden Ellis seems challenged by. She likes to host parties, and despite being a New Yorker with limited space, has an abundance of stemware and coolers for the purpose. The pandemic left her missing those events. And because so much of her writing draws on lived experiences, the limitations of pandemic life, especially in New York City, seem to frustrate her. Trapped inside of an apartment instead of having adventures surely forced her to contemplate a different set of subjects, as evidenced by the presence of the pandemic and domestic life in the collection.
About a third of the collection directly references the pandemic: people who left New York City, Ellis’s pandemic routines, and how it all disrupted her life, or didn’t. Often the pandemic is a way to segue to a past experience. In “We Are Not That Couple,” the narrative begins with Ellis having dinner with a doctor and his wife. He credits the N95 masks for avoiding COVID. Then the narrative transitions into a discussion of her own marriage, in the past. The pandemic is a window through which Ellis is forced to gaze.
Her husband and her happy marriage are central figures in this collection, too. Like everyone locked inside for months, her writing has turned even more inward than usual. While Ellis has always been willing to reveal her personal secrets and her observations of the people around her, this latest collection dives into her domestic life, like unveiling her obsession with colorful stickers and her “nonhoarder” habit of hoarding art. She has closets full of art, apparently, and some of it is even valuable.
Ellis and her husband also make art, so to speak. For Valentine’s Day, they have a tradition of crafting, such as painting rocks and making papier-mâché. Another project she and her husband undertook was sending secret admirer cards to their friends, wondering who might guess the origin. “See, art is for everyone. You can do that,” she explains in the conclusion of the essay. If the sentiment feels light on analysis, that’s because it isn’t the point. The journey is at least as important for Ellis as the destination.
Ellis excels at drawing humor out of ordinary life events in the same way a doctor can draw poison from a snakebite. She finds the funny in situations that otherwise are not. For instance, she writes: “two days before my sister’s wedding, Mama tripped in a Cracker Barrel parking lot and knocked out her front teeth,” setting the stage for a tragedy. Instead, what unfolds in the essay is a series of wedding foibles from her mother’s missing teeth, to Ellis’s wedding disrupted by a kitchen fire, and a friend late to reception because of traffic. Taken individually, these are banal anecdotes. In Ellis’s skilled hands, they are strung together in a coherent narrative illustrating a commentary on marriage: “Because bad stuff happens. And for better or for worse, how we handle such stuff on our wedding day predicts how well we’ll handle such stuff”.
How Ellis handles stuff is the interesting part. There is, for instance, the encounter with a fan at a book party. The event was outside of the relative safety of Manhattan when a woman who had married the ex-husband of Ellis’s friend introduced herself. “It took everything I had not to push her into a cut-glass bowl of pimento cheese to teach him a lesson,” she wrote. The anecdote opens the narrative “May I Hold Your Grudge for You?”, an examination of her animosity toward a variety of enemies and loyalty to friends. The essay exemplifies her appeal. She’s charming and friendly on the surface, but deeply human just the same.
In Kiss Me in The Coral Lounge, Helen Ellis delivers more of her usual wit and wry observation in a succinct collection of essays reflecting the turmoil of recent history. It’s a collection for fans of her work, and anyone looking to find humor in the mundane.
Kiss Me in the Coral Lounge
By Helen Ellis
Published June 13, 2023
Ian MacAllen is the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American, forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield in 2022. His writing has appeared in Chicago Review of Books, The Rumpus, The Offing, Electric Literature, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and elsewhere. He serves as the Deputy Editor of The Rumpus, holds an MA in English from Rutgers University, tweets @IanMacAllen and is online at IanMacAllen.com.