Like a Champion is a collection of stories mostly revolving around the theme of underdogs and generally put-upon people achieving some form of everyday victories, whether in a moral sense or a more literal one. The protagonists of the stories include office workers, aging parents, trouble-making kids, and jilted lovers.
The title story, probably my favorite in the book, is about the owner of a toy and comic store called Like A Champion, which is going out of business. It follows the last few days of his closing sale and all the things he wants to do before he closes the shop for good. Meanwhile, the stores around his have been hit by a string of burglaries.
“’Ten percent? Hell kind of closing sale is this?’
This town. Sometimes Georgie wondered what they put in the water. Cheapskate juice? Goober concentrate? Georgie got off the train-watching stool and went out to the front room.”
One of his final tasks is to ask out the FedEx lady, Felicia, who delivers his packages. On the day of the date he manages to score with her, his store is robbed. During the date, he becomes suspicious of the Felicia, thinking that she’s being ‘too nice’ to him and must have been behind the burglary. This part is appropriately cringeworthy as he ruins the date with his distrust, unable to accept this good-looking woman could be into him without ulterior motives. In the end, Georgie manages to bounce back in more ways than one.
“Be Sweet and Loving” is the most heartbreaking story in the book. It’s written in the form of a rambling email from a mother to her son in Estonia. She expresses her worries about him, asks him if he’s taking care of himself, and wonders if he got her care packages. Over the course of email, she reveals her loneliness, her health problems, and her deep fear of being alienated from her children.
“Please try to let go of my past errors. Did you know I was also hurt deeply by my own mother and father in the past? I was happy to walk out of my parents’ house and start my own life. I made a lot of mistakes. Your father was not loving at all.”
Another excellent piece is the story (though short enough to be more of a vignette) “Bathroom Break.” A woman named Noreen goes into a bar bathroom after drinking too much and contemplates the weight she’s gaining. She realizes that her friends have likely noticed because they no longer make fat jokes around her. She wonders if they still make jokes about her behind her back, thinks of food-based insults, and whether she should let herself puke. Chu packs a lot in the four-pages of this story.
In “Overseas Club,” an American teacher working in Germany named Beatrice finds herself in a one-sided rivalry with another American teacher named Bernie. Bernie is a seemingly “perfect” woman; attractive and well-liked by her students and colleagues. Bernie starts an informal club of the international teachers but never invites Beatrice to join. When rumors of Bernie being inappropriate with her students start circulating, Beatrice is all too happy to contribute to them, until she learns the truth.
Not every story works. One of the more interesting set-ups is in “Recent Conversations” which is written in the form of a correspondence between two people on a dating site. There are some flashes of insight into modern relationships, especially how they form online, but in the end the story just falls flat and doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Likewise, “Like A Norwegian” is written in the form of a travel log about a man on a cruise alone that he doesn’t find fun at all. It’s a very funny story that makes effective use of its format, but ends on a very forced romance.
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Like a Champion is an excellent debut. Most of the stories are funny, entertaining, and charming. Vincent Chu has a way of writing prose that makes you feel like a close friend is telling the story to you. Highly recommended.
Review copy provided
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