The short story is a minor art form that, in the hands of a very few practitioners, becomes major art. Its effect is rarely isolated or singular, but accumulative; a distinguished story collection is one that is greater than the mere sum of its disparate parts. In isolation, striking and original as individual stories might be, it’s likely that they would quickly fade from literary memory, as a few scattered poems of Emily Dickinson, separated from the poet’s great body of work, would have long since faded into oblivion.
Yet one might argue that collections of short fiction have been among the major literary accomplishments of the twentieth century. Surely the astonishing stories of Franz Kafka (“The Judgment,” “The Metamorphosis,” “In the Penal Colony,” “A Country Doctor,” “A Report to an Academy,” “The Hunger Artist,” among others) are a greater accomplishment than his uncompleted novels. Thomas Mann’s shorter works—“Death in Venice,” “Mario and the Magician,” “Disorder and Early Sorrow,” among others—are an achievement equivalent to that of the lengthy, ambitious, doggedly cerebral great novels.
In a very different vein, there are the brilliantly realized short stories of Katherine Mansfield, who never wrote a novel. There is Jorge Luis Borges, whose wonderfully original, idiosyncratic work consists almost entirely of enigmatic ficciones, some of them very brief. The short stories of Ernest Hemingway, including the entirety of his remarkable first book, In Our Time, are a greater accomplishment than the novels that brought him wealth and celebrity; no novel by Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud, Peter Taylor, Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, Donald Barthelme, among others, is the equivalent of their short stories. J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories is at least the equivalent of the immensely popular adolescent saga Catcher in the Rye, and of more abiding interest to adults. And there is the example of Raymond Carver, who wrote short stories and poetry exclusively, and who has ascended since his premature death in 1988 to near-mythic status as “the American Chekhov”: a posthumous celebrity that suggests a certain bleak irony if one is acquainted with Carver’s personal life.1
The perennial question “Is the short story an endangered species?” would seem to assume a perilous contemporary climate for the survival of this purely literary form. Despite the present-day profusion of literary magazines of varying degrees of excellence, and recent publications of outstanding short story collections by writers who have made the form their primary mode of expression, among these Tobias Wolff, Thom Jones, Lorrie Moore, the late Andre Dubus, and the veterans Grace Paley and Alice Munro,2 one doubts that the twenty-first century will be as hospitable to short story writers as the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been. Short stories, unlike novels, are invariably “literary” and the audience for serious literature is said to be static; in some quarters, it’s likely that the perusal of reviews of books has replaced an actual reading of “primary materials” (i.e., books).
In this radically diminished landscape, the generally reliable, heroically edited, and accessible annual anthologies The Best American Short Stories, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, and The Pushcart Prize: The Best of the Small Presses are invaluable.
No more beautifully cadenced and moving collection of short fiction is likely to appear this year than Colum McCann’s provocatively titled Everything in This Country Must, a gathering of two stories and a novella. “This country” is Ireland, the time is the near-present, and the subject is the Troubles, pervasive as mist obscuring the green countryside. It’s an era when political strife is unavoidable even by those who hope to define themselves as apolitical, and when no family, Catholic or Protestant, has been untouched. Wounds are fresh, though rarely discussed; forgiveness, though reasonable and necessary, simply isn’t possible for many who have suffered personal losses. The title story begins ominously, with that air of melancholy beauty and resignation that characterize McCann’s understated, luminous language:
A summer flood came and our draft horse got caught in the river. The river smashed against stones and the sound of it to me was like the turning of locks. It was silage time and the water smelled of grass. The draft horse, Father’s favorite, had stepped in the river for a sniff maybe and she was caught, couldn’t move, her foreleg trapped between rocks.
The narrator is a young farm girl named Katie who may be somewhat slow; through her limited perspective we are brought into the lives of a Catholic family devastated by the loss of family members struck by a British army truck:
…I could hear in Father’s voice more sadness than when he was over Mammy’s and Fiachra’s coffins, more sadness than the day after they were hit by the army truck down near the Glen, more sadness than the day when the judge said Nobody is guilty, it’s just a tragedy, more sadness than even that day and all the days that follow.
McCann sustains a mood of dreamlike suspense and mounting anxiety through an adventure that involves young British soldiers vainly trying to help save the draft horse, and ends in a gesture of anguish that’s both unexpected and inevitable: “Oh what a small sky for so much rain.”
From a very different perspective, the second story, “Wood,” depicts a Protestant family at a time when the father, a miller and carpenter, has had a stroke, and the mother must take on responsibility for the household. Here too the perspective is that of a child, a boy who comes to a realization of his parents’ precarious situation in a tensely politicized Northern Ireland; his father has distanced himself from local anti-Catholic activity (“Daddy says he’s as good a Presbyterian as the next…but it’s just meanness that celebrates other people dying”), while the boy’s mother is more willing to cooperate, and to provide poles to carry banners in the annual Orangemen’s march. The story builds to a dramatic pitch yet isn’t finally dramatic, still less melodramatic. As in the Joycean model of poetically rendered, elliptical fiction, the conclusion is only a poignant trailing off from overt confrontation:
I looked at the oak trees behind the mill. They were going mad in the wind. The trunks were big and solid and fat, but the branches were slapping each other around like people.
The novella “Hunger Strike” is a more ambitious, and more painful, depiction of a young person’s agitation at a time, presumably in the early 1980s, of intense political confrontation in Northern Ireland. A fourteen-year-old Belfast boy has been taken by his mother to live in Galway for the duration of a hunger strike by IRA prisoners in a Belfast prison; one of the prisoners is the boy’s twenty-five-year-old uncle, his deceased father’s younger brother, whom the boy has never met but whom he reveres. The novella takes us into the boy’s most intimate experience in his involuntary exile. He’s transfixed by the hunger strike, which lasts for over fifty days; with mounting terror and fury he thinks constantly of his uncle: “He was one of four prisoners on the strike—already, for each man dead another had replaced him and the boy found it strange that the living were stepping into the bodies of the gone. The dying, he thought, could go on forever.” While the boy endures his uncle’s martyrdom at a distance, he also is susceptible to frequent outbursts of destructiveness and vandalism; his rage is barely contained. In Northern Ireland, too, violence erupts anew in response to British refusal to grant the striking prisoners political status:
The riots back home were full-scale now. Some prison guards had been shot. Two joyriders had been gunned down in Twinbrook. A young girl, bringing home milk, had been hit in the head with a rubber bullet and she was in a coma. Somebody had slit the throats of a whole herd of cattle because they belonged to a Catholic farmer and the herd had been strung together to make the word NO in the field.
McCann’s powerfully imagined elegy for the passing of youth’s idealism suggests both the bittersweet, unsentimental lyricism of Edna O’Brien’s early Irish stories and those novels by Bernard MacLaverty, Cal and Grace Notes, in which the tragic shadow of the political falls across the lives of sharply rendered, individualized men and women. At the end of “Hunger Strike,” the bereft boy is forced to realize that “…the uncle he didn’t know was all the uncle he’d ever know.” Perhaps this is a way of speaking of the ambiguous relationship of a young generation of Irish writers, some of them expatriates (McCann, born in Northern Ireland, currently lives in New York City), to Ireland itself.
There’s this frantic but good-hearted guy Johnny Loop, born loser, just released from two years in a Galveston prison and now “frying across the Texas panhandle” in July to arrive in Vegas where he meets up with Fruit Loop his stunted but busty and hippy and blond-as-bleach younger sister in her wedding dress who’s about to be married to built-like-a-bull semi-pro football player Breezy Bonaventure of the Sarasota Panthers, except there are complications involving considerable violence when a pervert in a nearby hotel conspicuously leers at Fruit Loop and Breezy and the entire Panther team, obliged to seek vengeance, beat him up and Johnny Loop left to ponder his existential dilem-ma, while downing numerous cans of beer:
I do not like to gamble and done Vegas too many times. I am not lucky. Some people are lucky. The big finger in the sky is pointed at them. The big finger in the sky never so much as took the time to poke me in the eye.
In a casino bar Johnny Loop is approached by a beautiful woman who is ten times better looking than any woman who ever looked at him twice in his life, a schoolteacher from Iowa dressed all in shiny spangles. She smiles at him, and next thing Johnny Loop knows it’s hours later, he’s waking from a nightmare, his sister Fruit Loop and Breezy Bonaventure are married and gone on their honeymoon, and it’s being explained to Johnny Loop by a doctor how lucky he is to be alive because it seems that a crucial organ has been surgically removed from his body. But to elucidate any further would be to cheat the reader of the opportunity to discover how Tom Paine works out this wild, wacky, finally poignant title story of his virtuoso collection Scar Vegas.
There are ten remarkable stories here, with singular idiosyncratic voices, characters in extremis like Johnny Loop, and a passionate political vision underlying the inspired chaos of the plots. Scar Vegas is a bold and original first book rendered for the most part at breakneck speed. In the opening story, “Will You Say Something, Monsieur Eliot?,” a young American male of the privileged Caucasian class (“The world loves me”) suffers an accident on a single-handed sailing trip out of the Bahamas and bound for St. Barts, endures hardship in the killing sun, and begins to hallucinate:
The romance of Raymond Carver's posthumous career is a literary phenomenon akin to the papal sanctification of a martyr. Carver was no romantic himself, however, and explains candidly in his essay "Fires" his reasons for concentrating on short forms:
During [the] ferocious years of parenting, I usually didn't have the time, or the heart, to think about working on anything very lengthy. The circumstances of my life, "the grip and slog" of it, in D.H. Lawrence's phrase, did not permit it. The circumstances of my life with these children dictated something else . If I wanted to write anything, and finish it, and if ever I wanted to take satisfaction out of finished work, I was going to have to stick to stories and poems. The short things I could sit down and, with any luck, write quickly and have done with.
In his twenties, Carver "always worked some crap job or other," sawmill jobs, janitor jobs, delivery man jobs, service station jobs, stockroom boy jobs, even tulip-picking in Arcata, California. His desperation to find time to write was conjoined with an equal desperation to make enough money to support his young family. "There were good times back there, of course; certain grown-up pleasures and satisfactions that only parents have access to. But I'd take poison before I'd go through that time again."↩
Tobias Wolff's short story collections include Back in the World (1983) and The Night in Question (1996); Thom Jones's include The Pugilist at Rest (1993) and Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine (1999); Lorrie Moore is the author of the much-acclaimed Birds of America (1998); and Dubus, Paley, and Munro have published their collected stories.↩
The romance of Raymond Carver’s posthumous career is a literary phenomenon akin to the papal sanctification of a martyr. Carver was no romantic himself, however, and explains candidly in his essay “Fires” his reasons for concentrating on short forms:
During [the] ferocious years of parenting, I usually didn’t have the time, or the heart, to think about working on anything very lengthy. The circumstances of my life, “the grip and slog” of it, in D.H. Lawrence’s phrase, did not permit it. The circumstances of my life with these children dictated something else . If I wanted to write anything, and finish it, and if ever I wanted to take satisfaction out of finished work, I was going to have to stick to stories and poems. The short things I could sit down and, with any luck, write quickly and have done with.
In his twenties, Carver “always worked some crap job or other,” sawmill jobs, janitor jobs, delivery man jobs, service station jobs, stockroom boy jobs, even tulip-picking in Arcata, California. His desperation to find time to write was conjoined with an equal desperation to make enough money to support his young family. “There were good times back there, of course; certain grown-up pleasures and satisfactions that only parents have access to. But I’d take poison before I’d go through that time again.”↩
Tobias Wolff’s short story collections include Back in the World (1983) and The Night in Question (1996); Thom Jones’s include The Pugilist at Rest (1993) and Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine (1999); Lorrie Moore is the author of the much-acclaimed Birds of America (1998); and Dubus, Paley, and Munro have published their collected stories.↩