As lovers of short fiction already know, we’re nearly through National Short Story Month. Those who were unaware of this calendar distinction were probably off celebrating May as National Asparagus Month, National High Blood Pressure Month, or National Correct Posture Month (and if you think I’ve made any of those up, I challenge you to Google me wrong).
I’ve always been a champion of the short story, both as a writer and a reader, and it always stuns me into silence when I have friends–good friends, well-read, intelligent, tax-paying friends–who dismiss short stories with a flap of the hand, a pinch of the lips, and a deprecating, “Oh, I don’t do short stories.” It’s said in the same tone of voice a vegetarian would say, “I don’t do meat.” When I come back with, “Why not?” the answers are always vague and insubstantial. I have yet to find anyone who can give me a solid, tangible reason they don’t like short stories. Maybe they “don’t have time” for short fiction, perhaps they prefer relationships that are long-term (like the weeks-long marriage with a novel), or it could be they think short stories are quaintly old-fashioned and that they stopped being written around the time O. Henry died. In truth, I suspect they’re afraid of short stories, an aversion that began in grade school. Quite possibly involving nuns, rulers and knuckles.
At any rate, it’s a good thing we have a long month, with the full allotment of 31 days, in which to celebrate the shortest form of fiction. This year alone, there are so many great collections coming out we’ll need all the time we can get to sample them all. Here are just some of the 2014 short story collections topping my To-Be-Read pile (starting with two I’ve already swallowed in quick, eager gulps):
Thunderstruck and Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken
Sentence-for-sentence, Elizabeth McCracken’s new collection of short stories (her first since 1993’s Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry) is the best value for lovers of fine, funny writing. Every single page of the book offers a bargain bang for your buck (if we’re reducing art to the purely monetary level). I mean, good Lord, just look at these random sentences from Thunderstruck’s pages:
“The bath mat looked made of various flavors of old chewing gum.”
“The soul is liquid, and slow to evaporate. The body’s a bucket and liable to slosh.”
“The grandmother was a bright, cellophane-wrapped hard candy of a person: sweet, but not necessarily what a child wanted.”
“His hair looked like it had been combed with a piece of buttered toast.”
I could go on and on, but I’d probably get so excited, so overcome by my evangelic fervor for this fiction, that I’d end up transcribing the whole book here for you. And I’m trying to keep these capsules brief. So, I’ll just leave it at this: go buy the damn book. If you’re like me, you’ll be struck dumb with admiration for what McCracken can do with her sentences.
Redeployment by Phil Klay
According to a recent article in the New York Times, less than 0.5 percent of the American population serves in the military. If the other 99.5 percent of you want to know what it’s like to deploy to Iraq/Afghanistan, live with the constant unease of roadside bombs, watch your best friends get killed by one of those same bombs, and deal with the jarring return to stateside life, then I highly recommend reading Phil Klay’s stories. As one of the 0.5 percent who did serve (20 years in my case), I can assure you that Klay gets it right on every page of this searing, haunting collection. The stories are in-your-face brutal and beautiful, profane and poetic, funny and horrifying—much like the war experience itself. Most importantly, Redeployment will make readers question their own feelings about the recent wars and whether or not it’s really necessary to thrust out a hand to be shook and belch an automatic “Thank you for your service” every time they see a servicemember passing them in the airport. Sample lines: “The trigger was there, aching to be pushed. There aren’t a lot of times in your life that come down to, Do I press this button?”
Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor
Praying Drunk begins with a gunshot as the uncle of the story’s narrator blows his brains out, and it ends with a funeral in the rain. Sandwiched between are stories that provoke readers to think about life, death, and similar Big Topics. With titles like “You Shall Go Out With Joy and Be Led Forth With Peace,” “There is Nothing But Sadness in Nashville, and “The Truth and All Its Ugly,” you just know there’s not going to be anything tame about this book. Sample lines: “The year my boy Danny turned six, my wife Penny and me took him down to Lexington and got him good and scanned because that’s what everybody was doing back then, and, like they say, better safe than sorry.”
Mr. Bones by Paul Theroux
In these twenty stories, Theroux seems to be up to his old poke-the-sleeping-dog bag o’ tricks. In the title story, a family watches in horror as the patriarch starts going around in blackface and shaking a tambourine, thinking he’s a player in a minstrel show; an art collector publicly destroys his most valuable pieces; and a father wages war on raccoons. What’s not to love and hate in equal measure on these pages? Sample lines: “My father, apparently a simple cheery soul, seemed impossible to know. His smiles made him impenetrable.”
Natural Histories by Guadalupe Nettel
Granta once included Guadalupe Nettel in its “Best Untranslated Writers” series; but now, thanks to translator J. T. Lichtenstein and Seven Stories Press, we in the English-speaking world can get acquainted with the award-winning author from Mexico City. I haven’t had the chance to fully sample her work, but the publisher’s synopsis promises “Siamese fighting fish, cockroaches, cats, a snake, and a strange fungus” will serve as “mirrors that reflect the unconfessable aspects of human nature buried within us.” I confess I’m intrigued. Sample lines: “I’ve been a biology professor at the Universidad de Valle de México for over ten years. I specialize in insects. Some people in my field of research have pointed out to me that when I’m in the laboratory or lecture hall I almost always keep to the corners of the room. It’s like when I’m walking along a street; I feel safer if I’m near a wall.”
Chase Us by Sean Ennis
This debut collection opens with a father coming home one Christmas Eve, hanging a sheet across the entrance to the living room, then with much “crashing and cursing” behind it, proceeds to build a greenhouse as a gift for his wife, an agoraphobe. When finished, the small shelter looks like “a drained aquarium.” The mother goes inside and stays there, not even coming out when her daughter goes missing on New Years Eve. It’s a haunting, powerful start to a book of linked stories about growing up in Philadelphia.
Unravished by Hester Kaplan
In the concluding story of this collection by the author of the novel The Tell, two women—wary and distrustful of each other—find themselves alone on the campus of a private school where they work. Why are they alone? The world is coming to an end and everyone else has fled in terror, trying to figure out what to do with the remaining days of their shortened lives. As far as apocalyptic stories go, this one sure seems unputdownable and unforgettable. The rest of the book looks pretty damn good, too. Sample lines: “The world was going to end. No question. There was no date, but in any case, very soon-ish. Anyone who was sane believed it and those who didn’t were the zealots and the crazies these days. The same people who’d predicted the end a few years ago now didn’t believe it was going to happen, so they’d begun long-term projects—baby-making, house-painting, dog breeding, reading Moby-Dick. Lucky them if they blithely dismissed the truth.”
Bark by Lorrie Moore
Do really need to say anything more than “Lorrie Moore. New story collection. 2014.”? I think not. Maybe I’ll just offer up these sample lines as superfluous reasons you should go out and buy this collection (wise and knowing readers have already gone out and done so):
“Although Kit and Rafe had met in the peace movement, marching, organizing, making no nukes signs, now they wanted to kill each other. They had become, also, a little pro-nuke.”
“Ira had been divorced six months and still couldn’t get his wedding ring off.”
“’If dolphins tasted good,’ he said, ‘we wouldn’t even know about their language.’”
The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol
This debut collection by one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35” honorees has been getting a lot of praise since its release earlier this year—justifiably so, judging by the brief sips I’ve taken from its eight stories that span history and continents while focusing on disillusionment and heritage. Sample lines: “The day outside is hazy and gray; the fan on the counter blows dust. Jell-O spins slowly in a glass case. The radio, always a notch too loud for my taste, is turned up even higher for news hour. British troops have left Egypt, the Army-McCarthy Hearings are in full swing and the man who invented the zipper has dropped dead.”
What’s Important Is Feeling by Adam Wilson
Adam Wilson follows up his debut novel Flatscreen with this collection of a dozen stories about detoxing junkies, a doomed movie set, horny teenagers, and passionate arguments about Young Elvis vs. Vegas Elvis (which one to put on a postage stamp?). There’s a lot of angst and a fair share of weed in here, but I’m totally cool with that. Sample lines: “She smelled like maple syrup and a scent I couldn’t place, cleaning products maybe, the faint whiff of chemical lemon.”
Noontide Toll by Romesh Gunesekera
Imagine, if you will, Travis Bickle driving around the island of Sri Lanka and narrating a series of stories as he picks up fares. Now, instead of a mohawked assassin who keeps looking in the rear-view mirror and saying, “You talkin’ to me?” you have a much more peaceful soul named Vasantha who has retired early, bought himself a van with his savings, and started a second career as a driver for hire. He lives in a land rattled by civil war and many of Romesh Gunesekera’s stories involve Vasantha probing his riders with big questions of life, death, war, and love. Sample lines: “Mrs. Arunachalam, who was seven months pregnant and spread across the middle seat of my taxi van, wanted to make the eleven-hour journey to Jaffna in small stages, like an ant on a sugar trail. She ought not to have been travelling at all, the way she sighed and swooned, but her husband was very keen to show her a property in Jaffna that he intended to buy and develop as their new family home, and so she had come.”
The Heaven of Animals by David James Poissant
In “Knockout,” a married couple decides to call it quits in a most unforgettable manner: “It did not end in one of the usual ways. It did not disintegrate or implode or go up in flames. Max and Allison Bloom’s marriage ended in a five-round fight in a ring on their front lawn.” In other stories, Poissant gives us babies that glow, men wrestling an alligator, and a wolf who pays a visit in the middle of the night (taking a seat at the narrator’s dining room table and lapping up a bowl of coffee). I’m prepared for a TKO from Poissant’s fiction.
Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis
Lydia Davis writes stories so short, you almost don’t feel the hypodermic stab through your skull, inject its medicine into your brain, then withdraw like reverse lightning. They’re that brief and quick. Sometimes, they’re only one page long. Occasionally, they’re just a sentence. You’ll find some of those micro-fictions in Can’t and Won’t (including the two-sentence title story). These are short stories for people who say they don’t have time for short stories.
Last Stories and Other Stories by William T. Vollmann
Last month, I had the pleasure of sitting in a darkened theater listening to William Vollmann read a story about lovers shot while picking their way through war-torn Bosnia. I say “pleasure” because while the subject was a sad one, the telling of it was magnificent. I’m sure the others at Spokane’s Bing Crosby Theater (as part of the annual Get Lit! Festival) would agree that the story was literally and figuratively haunting. Ghosts whisper through all the pages of this new collection (Vollmann’s first book of fiction since the award-winning 2005 novel Europe Central). Here’s the publisher’s description of the tales: “A Bohemian farmer’s dead wife returns to him, and their love endures, but at a gruesome price. A geisha prolongs her life by turning into a cherry tree. A journalist, haunted by the half-forgotten killing of a Bosnian couple, watches their story, and his own wartime tragedy, slip away from him. A dying American romances the ghost of his high school sweetheart while a homeless salaryman in Tokyo animates paper cutouts of ancient heroes.” Prepare to be spooked in July.
We Were Flying to Chicago by Kevin Clouther
Kevin Clouther’s collection of short stories is further evidence that some of the most interesting literary fiction is coming out of small presses like Black Balloon Publishing. I’ve sampled paragraphs from several of the stories in this book–sort of like picking out pieces from a box of chocolates, taking one bite, then putting it back and moving on to the next caramel–and I can confidently report that this is writing that’s unmistakably alive and feral. Here, for example are the opening lines to the title story: “For no good reason, we were flying to Chicago. Our connecting flight had already left, and there was no hope of another that night. The flight attendant was a cruel sentinel. Stubbornly unattractive, she skulked in the corner, preemptively dismissing the complaints we all were thinking.” I just love that phrase “stubbornly unattractive.” Succinct and fresh, it paints a clear picture of this “cruel sentinel” in just two words. Or consider this opening paragraph to the story “I Know Who You Are”: “I was sitting at a desk in New York, an enormous desk with too many small things on it. The smallest thing was a paperclip. I mauled the paperclip. It was the only one. I turned it into an S and then a triangle. With my index finger, I launched the triangle into the door. The paperclip bounced cleanly onto the carpet.” Haven’t we all mauled paperclips at one point in our lives? I’m attracted to Clouther’s writing by its blunt, simple style–which I know can be a turn-off to some readers. But not me. I dig snub-nosed stories like this.
Scouting for the Reaper by Jacob M. Appel
Jacob M. Appel, winner of the Hudson Prize, had me hooked with the penguins in his short story, “Hazardous Cargoes,” whose opening lines go like this:
“Know your load.
That’s rule numero uno in this business, which is why I make them count the penguins out in front of me one at a time. I’m not going to be the schmuck who shows up in Orlando two birds short of a dinner party. Or the screw-up who’s got to explain to the highway patrol exactly how sixty kilos of coke ended up in his rig without his noticing. Short John Silver used to tell about one fellow who kept trying to turn his radio off, over and over again, but it just wouldn’t shut off, and when he pulled into a rest stop for the night, he realized he’d got a ten-piece mariachi band camping out in his trailer. So I always insist on a comprehensive inventory. And the guys at the zoo grumble about it, giving me looks as icy as the day is hot, but they do it. So I know I’m pulling out of Houston with exactly forty-two Gentoo penguins, seventeen Jamaican land iguanas, four tuataras from New Zealand, and a pair of rare, civet-like mammals called linsangs. No more, no less.”
Most of the other first lines in this collection are no less hook-y:
“Miss Stanley was new to the ninth grade that autumn, and we could all sense that she wasn’t cut out for it.”
“The woman who was not my mother was named Sheila Stanton and at the age of nineteen she was held captive for ninety-one days by the Red Ribbon Strangler.“
“Nothing sells tombstones like a Girl Scout in uniform.”
“Another family crisis: The rabbit goes blind. “
I don’t know about you, but when I see authors wield this much control and authority over their fiction from the first sentence, I just know the rest of the book will have a satisfying pay-off.
by George Singleton
I look forward to George Singleton stories in the same way that certain thirty-year-old men with painted faces, beer-can-crumpling hands, and a predilection for Velveeta-and-salsa fondue look forward to the Super Bowl. If G. S. was a pro team, he’d have fingers full of championship rings. One of the things I like about his writing is how he doesn’t tip-toe into his stories with a lot of wasted, rambling preamble. He gets right to the point with his first sentences, sort of like Muhammad Ali barreling forward like a locomotive, connecting glove to jaw before his opponent even has a chance to say the word “bumblebee.” For example, this one from the first story in Between Wrecks: “Because I’d seen part of a documentary on gurus who slept on beds of nails, and because I’d tried to quit smoking before my wife came back home after leaving for nine months in order to birth our first child–though she would come back childless and say it was all a lie she made up in order to check into some kind of speech clinic up in Minnesota to lose her bilateral lisp–I had a dream of chairs and beds adorned entirely with ancient car cigarette lighters. This wasn’t the kind of dream a person could forget or disobey.” Between Wrecks also includes “I Would Be Remiss,” 60 pages of “thank yous” by the (fictional) author of (the equally-fictional) No Cover Available: The Story of Columbus Choice, African-American Sushi Chef from Tennessee. This is followed directly by Singleton’s own (single-page) Acknowledgements in which, among others, he thanks his agent “for agreeing that I should not bow to the pressure of writing another novel.” Amen.
Incendiary Girls by Kodi Scheer
I know I’ve been throwing a lot of “first lines” at you here today, but I’m going to wrap up this roundup with a few more—brilliant sentences from Kodi Scheer’s debut collection:
“Ellen is convinced her daughter’s lesson horse is the reincarnation of her mother.”
“When Angela comes out of the anesthesia, she asks for a dirty martini with an onion instead of an olive. In truth, she just wants to be healthy again.”
“Two hours before the competition, we find a pink shoe box of scorched hair in the hotel lobby.”
“Gabe follows me around the house. He’s the cadaver we’re dissecting in Gross Anatomy.”
“Your lover hasn’t always been a camel.”
“Hannah found his left ear in the laundry hamper.”
Now, be honest, could you resist reading what follows after eye-popping beginnings like those? I didn’t think so. And I’m guessing you didn’t need a nun breaking a ruler over your knuckles to get you to read them, either.