Today, the goal for BBAW posts is “pimping” a book I feel doesn’t get enough attention. Well, a. I don’t follow rules well, and b. I absolutely hate picking just one of anything, so you’re getting an assortment here.
However, I will focus on a specific type of book. Though it isn’t something I think I’ve ever mentioned here, I wrote short stories once upon a time. I fell in love with them in high school when I read Ernest Hemingway’s short fiction, and I loved the idea of doing so much in such a small amount of space. As an undergrad and later as a grad student, I fell in love with short stories again, particularly because I wanted to improve my own and felt I should read as much short fiction as possible.
Short story collections are difficult to review. I’ll be the first to admit that, and I’ve often wondered if that’s why I don’t come across many on review sites. But my own love of them has never faded. Writing good short fiction requires such mastery in writing (I feel), and they can easily go wrong. But when they’re good? Damn.
So today I’ll highlight my short story writer trifecta (I’m not including Flannery O’Connor because oddly enough, even though she’s a woman, her collections are rather well known. Nor am I including Ernest Hemingway. Ditto.):
Part of what I love about short fiction is the payoff. When you read a novel, sometimes the payoff is long in coming. In short stories, you don’t have long to wait, and the first time I read “Cathedral” [full text link], I sat, book in hand, tears in my eyes. Because Carver’s characters are nothing special. They’re Joe Blow, shallow, jealous, profane, insensitive. They’re you and I on our worst days. But there is some spark, some moment that lifts them from their ordinary lives, and the result is profound.
Start with: “A Small Good Thing”/”Careful”
Cheever. John Cheever speaks to the lost magic and wonder of adulthood. His stories are often called “stories of suburbia,” but in truth, they’re about the humdrum life of the adult, and those ways in which we either fall prey to it or challenge it.
If you’ve read anything by John Cheever, odds are it’s “The Swimmer” [full text link]. And, if you haven’t read it, click on that little linkamajink, stat. Cheever’s stories are rife with internal conflict, but there’s also a sense of wonder in his stories that never fails to amaze me because of the sober subject matter. “The Swimmer” is the story of a man who decides one lazy Sunday afternoon to swim across town in swimming pools. And if that sounds odd, just wait until you see where these swimming pools take him. When we discuss this story in my Intro to Lit class, I have students help me create a map of the pools along with complete descriptions before we analyze this epic journey. It never fails to involve just about everyone (and if you teach, you know how difficult this can be).
Start with: “The Enormous Radio” [full text link]/”The Country Husband”
I would say, of the three, Dubus is the most different. Whereas Cheever and Carver’s characters are isolated, whether they know it or not, Dubus’ characters are so humane. His character sketches are so sympathetic and forgiving of human failings. These are people facing loss of different sorts, and they react in the ways we do or the ways we might want to but cannot or do not.
Again, to focus on one particular story, “Killings” is probably his most anthologized story. A mother and father grieve for their son, and justice is far from being done. Watching his wife is almost as painful as Matt’s own grief, and that grief leads him to act in the only way he can conceive. It’s heartbreaking, and his anger, guilt, and sadness are palpable, urging you to understand and forgive, even if Matt himself cannot.
Start with: “A Father’s Story” [full text link]
So there you have it. The best of the best in terms of relatively lesser-known or recognized short story writers. And if you’ve been hesitant to read a short story collection, I think they’re ideal for bedtime. You can limit yourself to one or two stories without feeling the need to continue and stay up way too late finishing. I’m currently finishing up Junot Diaz’s collection This Is How You Lose Her, and it helps me get ready for bed but also to savor the stories individually.