Two immensely satisfying collections filled with yearning, stinging with ache

Review Short stories

July 16, 2006|By VICTORIA A. BROWNWORTH | VICTORIA A. BROWNWORTH,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

All Things, All at Once

Lee K. Abbott

Voodoo Heart

Scott Snyder

Dial Press / 288 pages / $24

This review begins with a disclaimer: I'm in love with short stories. I love reading them, writing them and teaching about reading and writing them. I'm passionate about short stories in the classroom, tell my students that the short story is the perfect literary form: manageable yet memorable.

Short stories require limited time commitment (even to write), yet they are sometimes far more mesmerizing than a novel. (Sorry, Mr. Bloom, but The Dead is James Joyce's finest work; Babylon Revisited more poignant than F. Scott Fitzgerald's novels; and The Country Husband rivals John Cheever's novels for perfection.)

Two new collections - one from a veteran of the form and the other a debut - prove just how immeasurably satisfying short fiction can be.

Lee K. Abbott is one of those writers who flies under the radar, and yet his work is preponderant in O. Henry award selections and Best American Short Stories collections. A writer's writer, Abbott has honed his craft to a glinty, dangerous sharpness. His stories, set in the Southwest of New Mexico and Texas, sound similar chords to those by E. Annie Proulx, Larry McMurtry and Raymond Carver.

All Things, All at Once is a powerful mix of 25 tales full of bittersweet emotion and the low-level suffering that comes from not having or not knowing what you most need. Abbott's stories are the stuff of everyday life wrought crisply and with a clarity as visual as it is visceral.

"Gravity," an immensely moving tale about a teenager who might have been abducted or might have run away to join a girl gang, proffers a father's loss in a style both off-handed and go-for-the-jugular bloody. "The End of Grief" examines the tragedy of a son coming of age during the Vietnam War, shouldering the burden of his father's obsessive guilt over his own brother's death during the Bataan Death March. "One of Star Wars, One of Doom" pivots on a school shooting and an affair between two teachers. "Martians" finds another son weighed down by his father's life-altering experience, in this instance, the sighting of a UFO.

There are no so-so stories in All Things, All at Once; each piece resonates its own complex chords of loss, suffering, betrayal, redemption. Abbott focuses on the complicated nature of relationships - between husbands and wives, former and current lovers, fathers and sons or daughters, and "home" (many of Abbott's characters leave and come back to small-town New Mexico).

Abbott doesn't do happy, but like Proulx and McMurtry, he does do resolution and resolve superbly. "Everything is sad as dirt" and women eye their men "hard, as if I'm a stain that won't wash out." It's a grim and gritty world that Abbott's characters inhabit, where married people inevitably stray, children are forced to live for their parents, and, throughout it all, the unforgiving landscape offers nothing comforting save familiarity: It's just "most of New Mexico to the east, a cheap shade of purple" as "more night descends upon us, another terrible morning only hours away." These stories capture the language, color and incestuousness of small-town desert life with brutal, flinty clarity.

Voodoo Heart, Scott Snyder's debut collection, is as the title implies: quirky and disturbing. Fraught with characters yearning for escape but unable to achieve it, because one simply can't outrun one's self, Voodoo Heart often pivots on the ache left by ineffable yearning or on the shock of unwanted self-discovery.

In "Blue Yodel," Preston Bristol drives across the country in 1918 chasing a blimp carrying his fiancee, Claire, whom he met in a wax museum. Pres works at Niagara Falls, searching out people bent on going over in barrels. Some are saved, yanked from the barrels and slapped hard to shake them out of their mesmerized state. Pres isn't so lucky as he barrels into emotional rapids; there's no one to slap him as he travels cross country, a pistol and map on the seat beside him, seeking Claire and the blimp, a contraption no one he meets has ever heard of, finding clues only he can divine.

"Wreck" features a 26-year-old loner who spends his days in the woods with his blind cat and a metal detector in a quiet resort town known mostly for fishing and a fat farm for kids. A famous woman arrives to recover from a serious accident, her once-beautiful face torn apart. At first their association is limited by her fear of adulation, but he's too hermitic to know who she is. The tentative friendship blossoms into a full-fledged affair. But as her face begins to heal, each feels the knitting of her wounds as an unraveling of their relationship.

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