The preeminent mid-twentieth-century American short story writers seem to us now brilliantly inspired regionalists, though it would have been difficult to see them as such at the time they were writing. The America of Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Peter Taylor, Jean Stafford, Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, and the young and rapidly ascendant John Updike was exclusively Caucasian, predominantly Protestant, likely to be middle-class conservative if not genteel. Flannery O’Connor, a fiercely partisan Roman Catholic, cast her merciless satiric eye upon the Protestant South, in which her broadly caricatured poor whites and poorer blacks crowd against the property lines of uneasy middle-class whites. Katherine Anne Porter, born to hardscrabble poverty in a log cabin in West Texas, was inspired in time to invent for herself a pseudo-Southern aristocratic background and to establish her own adamant property lines.
Though there were notable exceptions—certain of Welty’s more dreamlike, myth-inspired stories, such dark fantasies by Cheever as “The Enormous Radio” and “Torch Song,” and Updike’s extravagantly Joycean The Centaur—these writers were unflagging realists with little interest in literary experimentation; their fictions are not so much mirrors moving along roadways, in the mode of Stendhal, as mirrors held up to reflect domestic places, times, and manners, revealing the private lives of writers’ ever fascinating and worthy kind.
In the twenty-first century, the landscape of American literary fiction is radically altered. There is no longer a “mainstream” but rather numerous tributaries, highly charged, churning with energy and invention. The anarchic experimentation of the 1960s and 1970s has been assimilated even into popular, commercial fiction and has become, for most practitioners, simply another mode of writing as traditional in its way as realism. If the four new collections of short stories under review—except for Brady’s Curled in the Bed of Love, all first books—are a reliable indication, there is as much writerly concern for form and precision of language as there was fifty years ago, but subjects are not likely to be defined by the regional; characters are nearly always from somewhere else, and their “roots” are not an issue. In contemporary fiction it’s more likely to be locale that matters, not a region with a specific history. Not where one has come from but where one is going is the issue.
It would be difficult to name another recent first story collection, American or otherwise, as ambitious, varied, and strong as John Murray’s A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies. Its eight thematically linked stories are so diverse in their characters’ ethnic and family backgrounds, so provocative in their ideas, and so generously fitted out with scientific, medical, and historical information that to say that Murray (trained as a doctor, with experience as an emergency medical worker in third-world countries) is a prodigious talent is something of an understatement.
Where most first story collections are hardly more bulky than books of poetry and likely to repeat character types and settings from story to story …