ZZ Packer takes us into the lives of characters on the periphery, unsure of where they belong. We meet a Brownie troop of black girls who are confronted with a troop of white girls; a young man who goes with his father to the Million Man March; an international group of drifters in Japan; a girl in a Baltimore ghetto who dreams of the larger world she has seen only on the screens in the television store nearby, where the Lithuanian shopkeeper holds out hope for attaining his own American Dream.
Here in this one skinny volume is all that heat and wit and intuitive naturalness, all those subtle and instinctive tricks you just can't teach. I don't think I can remember where I last encountered a debut collection that so justified its existence, that buzzed with so much credibility and attitude ... There's not a slack phrase or a boring paragraph in this collection. Everything, you feel, is tight and meant. Description and similes - so often abused by first-time writers - are employed with urgency, grace and humour. Best of all, Packer's happy to leave things untidy.
...the obstacles to achieving identity are more complicated than the obvious ones, such as our grievous racial history. Characters are squeezed between competing assumptions and proscriptions, both societal and familial. Tensions are internalized or they explode into violence or both. Packer's debut collection reminds us that no stylistic tour de force -- or authorial gamesmanship, or flights of language -- can ground a story like a well-realized character ... Packer does her best writing about characters who are coming of age in one way or another, like Doris, the teenager in 'Doris Is Coming' ... Young writers, naturally enough, write about young characters. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere is not really limited by this. Instead, there is a sense of a talented writer testing and pushing at those limits, ringing as many changes as possible within her fictional world. It is a world already populated by clamoring, sorrowing, eminently knowable people, and with the promise of more to come.
There is an apparent ease of composition and confidence of direction. There is enough texture of detail, colour, cruelty and sensibility to give the writing that elusive feeling of reality. But the winning component is Packer's authorial voice: uncompromising, funny, angry without the obsession, political without tedium, intensely human, peppered with astonishing moments of poetry ... This is a book full of journeys and escape, of characters displaced or alone, who often find that their destinations pose even more profound threats to their survival ... While Packer does seem over-preoccupied with black and white, she allows her lens to take in the grey areas between. In her darting through history and the present, she poses that essential question: how much has really changed? ... Serious and contentious, she never loses hold of the craft and delight of storytelling.