The many collections of short stories that are arriving in time for summer reading are an indication that the genre is not just alive and well, it's thriving. And for readers who long ago tired of the kind of postmodern, ironic stories that usurped the pages of literary quarterlies in the 1980s and '90s, the good news is that the old-fashioned art of storytelling seems to be making a strong comeback. Some new collections by familiar writers and a couple of noteworthy debuts are among the best of a shelf full of possibilities.
Antonya Nelson was selected by The New Yorker as one of 20 best writers for the 21st century, which is a nearly impossible accolade for any writer to live up to. Hyperbole aside, though, Nelson is a masterful writer, and Female Trouble, her fourth collection of stories, is filled with compelling, sometimes funny tales of love and loss and, well, trouble. Nelson's characters are so well-defined and her plots so well-delineated that it often seems as if she manages to cram a whole novel's worth of treasures into the 20 pages of a story. That's the case here with stories like Incognito, in which a woman re-encounters a brash, outrageous and decidedly fictional alter ego she and her high school friends created when they wanted to do the things good girls didn't do, or "The Other Daughter," about the less-than-perfect sister of a beautiful, if tragic, prom queen type. In the aptly named title story, a befuddled man gets involved with three very different women, two of whom just happen to be patients at the local psychiatric hospital. But he is unable to commit, it seems, even to the committed. As a writer, Nelson makes no false moves. She understands and empathizes with all of her characters from the inside out and, thanks to her assured talents, so do we.
Anyone who enjoyed Mark Winegardner's sprawling urban novel Crooked River Burning might be surprised, and pleased, to discover that he can also write polished little gems in the short story form. As with the novel, many of the stories in That's True of Everybody are set in or around the author's native Cleveland. Others are set in unassuming Midwestern and Southern locations, where ordinary people go about the unadorned business of getting through life. Some, like the bowling alley owner who has lost the essential connection with his two grown daughters in "Thirty-Year-Old Women Do Not Always Come Home," manage it with an iota of sangfroid. Others, like the teenage bride faced with an impotent groom in "Song for a Certain Girl," or the college dropout shacking up with a pool hall pick-up in Travelers Advisory, take their lumps and move on. After all, what else can they do? That is the underlying question in many of the stories by Winegardner an author who sympathizes with, but never patronizes, his characters. Less sympathetic, though, are three wickedly acerbic, nominally interconnected stories grouped as Tales of Academic Lunacy: 1991-2001, in which he skewers the insular groves of academia. There is The Visiting Poet and his serial conquests, The Untenured Lecturer whose sorry writing career leads him astray and Keegan's Load, in which an aging, ineffectual professor frustrates the rest of the faculty's aims and ambitions. Since Winegardner himself is a creative writing professor at Florida State, we need not doubt the accuracy of these unforgiving and entertaining tales.
Adam Haslett takes his characters from the fringes of society the repressed, the mentally ill, the orphaned, the grieving and the dying. But do not be deterred by this dark fact, for his You Are Not a Stranger Here is a very impressive debut. Haslett is an expert storyteller, who draws the reader in with his compassion, then methodically unravels unexpected truths. In his stories we meet a young man shutting out the world as he succumbs to AIDS, a boy so thrown by his mother's death that he can find solace only in brutally submissive sex with a hateful classmate, a callow doctor marooned in a rural practice whose own perceived suffering pales against the mental anguish of a depressed farm wife. In many of the stories, there is a connection made between two unlikely souls, a connection that, if it does not provide salvation, at least provides some measure of comfort. In "The Storyteller," a man adrift in Scotland meets an odd woman whose dying son supplies a purpose to go on. A high school boy forges an unusual relationship with an old woman battling the demons of memory in The Volunteer. Haslett's perceptive stories are far-flung in setting London, New England, Scotland, California but his themes are grounded in one place: the troubled human mind.
Madeline Thien is a talented young Canadian writer, whose first collection Simple Recipes arrives on this side of the border heralded by none other than that author of glorious short stories, Alice Munro. Though she is the daughter of Malaysian-Chinese immigrants, Thien doesn't much use this uncommon cultural upbringing in her stories, which is bit disappointing. Only the title story and the lengthy "A Map of the City" contain direct references to her Asian-Canadian background. Instead, Thien's wistful stories are more universal explorations of family and yearning. A number of them feature an ailing, absent or emotionally unavailable mother and/or an outwardly gentle father with a malicious streak. Her writing is spare, her observations direct and perceptive. At times she experiments with form, as in Dispatch, which is told in the second person. The strength of Thien's stories lies in the way she captures the distorted perspective of childhood and the confusion that accompanies the coming of age. By broadening her concerns beyond small domestic tragedies, Madeline Thien should continue to be a writer who has something to say and her own way of saying it.
A frequent contributor to BookPage, Robert Weibezahl lives in Southern California.