A time to celebrate the short story

January Fiction

January 14, 2001|By Michael Shelden | Michael Shelden,Special to the Sun

Conventional wisdom in the publishing world holds that short-story collections are poison. Nobody buys them, we are told, and many critics don't bother to review them. So, when publishers take a risk on these books, they usually sneak them out in the slow winter months and hope against hope that some adventurous readers will buy them.

With whole generations seemingly stricken by attention-deficit disorders, you'd think that long novels would be an endangered species, and that all the blockbusters would be slender volumes of short stories. Instead, when spring comes around, those slender volumes languish at half price on obscure corners of the remainder tables and are soon pulped and forgotten.

That's a great shame because the last 30 years have seen some remarkable developments in the genre. Foremost among recent masters of short fiction is Raymond Carver, whose death from cancer in 1988 was a tremendous loss to literature. This month brings a fresh reminder of his greatness in "Call If You Need Me: The Uncollected Fiction and Other Prose" (Vintage, 300 pages, $13), which includes five new stories discovered after Carver's death.

Everything in this collection is worth reading, but the real gem among the new material is the powerful story "Dreams." It's told in Carver's wonderfully spare style, with nothing flashy to distract from the bare facts of a common tragedy. A woman who has been abandoned by her husband and must take a job to support her children is devastated when the children perish in a fire. A neighbor tries to comfort her, and all the drama of the story centers on the neighbor's awkward efforts to express his sympathy without seeming too pushy or maudlin. In its insightful treatment of an emotional gap that can't be bridged the story is both artistically brilliant and deeply moving.

Rick Moody's "Demonology" (Little, Brown, 306 pages, $24.95) is a delightfully quirky collection of stories by a writer best known for his novels "The Ice Storm" and "Purple America." Moody is expert at finding the strange and mysterious aspects of life in the backwaters of America, and here he offers 13 tales that are, by turns, terrifying and wickedly funny. The best is "Surplus Value Books," which offers a hilarious parody of secondhand book catalogues and includes an entry for a bogus but plausible academic study titled "Demanding That You Deny Me That Which I Offer You: Lacan as Advanced Capitalist in the Age of Post-Post-Structuralism."

Pedro Juan Gutierrez's "Dirty Havana Trilogy" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 416 pages, $24) is a daring collection of stories about street life in Castro's Communist Paradise. The author's depiction of daily existence in Cuba is so grim and frightening that it's a wonder he has not been exiled to a remote sugar plantation. He shows us what the official propagandists are at pains to hide: the seedy underworld of black market racketeers, prostitutes, pimps, gamblers and thieves. He is a very able writer, and this brutally vivid look at modern Havana should be required reading for anyone tempted to romanticize Castro's revolution.

From 1929 to 1977, Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote gently romantic short stories for the New Yorker, many of which were set in her native England. She died in 1978, and her name is in danger of being forgotten today. But "The Music at Long Verney" (Counterpoint, 192 pages, $24), which contains 20 previously uncollected stories, may spark a revival of interest in a writer whose every page contains the wit and grace of a lost age of sophistication. With extraordinary economy, she is able to create a self-contained world in her stories and to weave an old-fashioned air of charm around her readers.

Chris Adrian's lengthy work "Gob's Grief" (Broadway Books, 384 pages, $24.95) began life as a short story published in the New Yorker in 1997. The story concerned the bizarre life of Gob Woodhull, the son of the 19th century feminist and social reformer Victoria Woodhull. The subject was too grand and complex to remain locked within a single short story, so Adrian has now fleshed it out and created a novel that captures not only Gob's life but also the spirit of reform that transformed America after the Civil War.

Adrian's fictional canvas is vast. With a Dickensian feel for eccentric characters, he moves effortlessly from battlefields to society balls, and from famous historical figures such as Walt Whitman to the obscure events in Gob Woodhull's fantastic life. While his notorious mother pursues her unconventional plans of free love and social independence, Gob becomes obsessed with the lost lives of the Civil War and devotes his energies to a machine that will supposedly raise the war dead from their graves. A combination of lunatic and poetic visionary, he is a marvelous creation.

Finally, among the many novels published this month, mention must be made of Rilla Askew's superb tale "Fire in Beulah" (Viking, 384 pages, $25.95). Set in Oklahoma during the 1920s, it gives a fictionalized account of one of the worst race riots in American history. Hundreds of African-Americans were killed in Tulsa during a single night in 1921, when a mob of whites burned the black district to the ground. This atrocity has been covered up for years and is still rarely mentioned in Oklahoma. But, with great passion and conviction, Rilla Askew has turned the story of the riot into a work of compelling fiction that is nevertheless true to the basic facts of an American tragedy.

Michael Shelden is the author of biographies of George Orwell, Cyril Connolly and Graham Greene and writes for the Daily Telegraph in London, the Times of London, the Washington Post and others.

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