American Stories: Fiction
From The Atlantic Monthly.
Edited by C. Michael Curtis.
239 pages. $9.95 (paperback).
In this age of literary minimalism, in which a hastily drawn sketch passes for a character portrait and "things-as-they-are" observations substitute for insight, it is gratifying and refreshing to read stories peopled with full-bodied, emotionally layered characters and steeped in smart everyday situational irony.
Of the 20 short stories selected for inclusion in "American Stories: Fiction From The Atlantic Monthly," senior editor C. Michael Curtis writes: "Something happens." These are honest-to-goodness stories: In each, a moment of transformation occurs, leading to a shift in understanding, a discovery of unimagined strength, or a moment of unexpected wisdom.
Before culling the chosen 20, which date back nearly 50 years, Mr. Curtis perused hundreds of stories appearing in The Atlantic Monthly, searching for a strong, trusting and original voice, signs of a "literate and controlled imagination," and moral weight. Represented in The Atlantic's first collection of short fiction are these exceptional writers: Eudora Welty (1942), Truman Capote, Joseph Heller, James Jones, John Steinbeck, James Alan McPherson, Flannery O'Connor, Donald Barthelme, Ann Beattie, John Gardner, Tobias Wolff, Garrison Keillor, Raymond Carver, Bernard Malamud, Jane Smiley, Louise Erdich, John Updike, David Michael Kaplan, T. Coraghessan Boyle and Charles Baxter (1988).
An aficionado of the writing of Ms. Welty, Mr. Steinbeck and Ms. O'Connor, I nonetheless found myself drawn to the fiction written in the 1970s and '80s, especially the deceptively simple, spare stories of Mr. Gardner, Carver and Mr. Wolff, who create that most wondrous of characters: the person who only seems to think and act as you or I.
In Mr. Gardner's "Redemption" (1977), a painfully withdrawn 12-year-old boy who killed his younger brother in a tractor accident finds expression and acceptance in the bluntness of the French horn and his 70-year-old music teacher, a survivor of the Russian Revolution. Carver's "Cathedral" (1981) literally has the blind leading the blind when an ignorant, bigoted, jealous husband discovers that his wife's blind former employer sees more without sight than he ever has with it.
My favorite is Mr. Wolff's "The Liar" (1980), an ironic day-in-the-life story about an otherwise normal 16-year-old boy who is a compulsive liar. The family outsider, James uses dramatic lies about disease, death and self-importance to defy limits imposed by his controlling mother. Through his juxtaposition of mother, son and absent, beloved/maligned father, Mr. Wolff says much about the nature of reality and truth and how much people need and can accept.
Donald Barthelme contributes "The Sandman" (1972), an intriguing, digressive letter to the anonymous writer's girlfriend's psychiatrist, chock-full of hostility, uncommon perception and wisdom. Ann Beattie's "Victor Blue" (1973) offers a touching diary of old age and death, written in a voice unidentified until the surprising conclusion; John Updike creates a sad but common scenario of marriage in which one spouse unwittingly overtakes the other in "Made in Heaven" (1985).
Conspicuously absent of violence and sex, the stories in this collection touch on dark ruminations that all people have about living: their hardships, losses and doubts, ignorance, pain, hatred, guilt, humiliation, aging, death, rejection, hypocrisy, loneliness, alienation and distrust. The stories suggest salvation through love and self-acceptance, but offer no tidy comforts or finishes. Like life, they just leave off.
Ms. Sjoerdsma is an attorney and writer living in Baltimore.