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, A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies contains enough material for several very different novels: family sagas set on several continents and involving people with such vocations as microbiology and emergency medicine in Bombay (“The Hill Station”), lobster fishing in Maine and nursing in Africa for the UN (“All the Rivers in the World”), neurosurgery and butterfly collecting (“A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies”), paleontology in Iowa City, Iowa (“White Flour”), missionary and medical work in the civil war–torn Congo (“Watson and the Shark”), and carpentry and oil painting (“The Carpenter Who Looked Like a Boxer”). As this incomplete catalog suggests, Murray is not a minimalist but one for whom “nothing is too small to escape his attention,” as it’s admiringly remarked of one of his physician visionaries.
A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies is a gallery of portraits to which narratives, most of them protracted in space and time, are sometimes awkwardly joined. In actual life, we are far more than the sum of our actions: it may even be that our actions are contradictory or inadequate to suggest our complexity. Murray means to suggest such complexity by way of lengthy background summaries, descriptions, and analyses of his characters. The author is perhaps not unlike one of his insect collectors, an Indian-born surgeon of whom it’s said, “He was obsessed with the systematic classification of his  specimens, and he could talk about beetle phenetics and phylogeny for hours.”
It’s remarked in “White Flour” that “every family has at least one lunatic”; each story in this collection has at least one lunatic, if by “lunatic” we mean a person possessed by an unattainable ideal, like saving lives in third-world countries in which deplorable social conditions prevail or finding a whole specimen of Ornithoptera alexandrae (Queen Alexandria’s birdwing), the largest butterfly in the world.
Murray’s women are more likely to be frustrated in their careers than his men, emotionally volatile and ill-suited for domestic life. “The only romance you have is with disease” is the charge leveled against a devoted woman microbiologist whose lovers are for her “a series of sensations.” The Indian-born wife in the title story, daughter of a physicist and trained as a neurosurgeon, for whom “the world is nothing but a mass of electrons, neutrons, and quarks, each with clearly defined rules of action and interaction,” nonetheless yearns for a baby, and is an enigma to her American-born, Caucasian husband:
[Maya] grew up in Washington, D.C., cut her teeth to the sounds of Elvis Presley and learned to drive during the last days of the Johnson Administration. She understood the first law of thermodynamics before her first kiss. Maya is a mass of cross-cultural contradictions—Levi’s and saris; Twinkies and dhal; David Bowie and Mahatma Gandhi; the Kama Sutra and Casablanca.
In “White Flour,” another dissatisfied Indian-born wife, trained as a paleontologist, provokes her more conventional, rather dull American physician-husband to flee their ruin of a marriage, and to take refuge in, ironically, volunteer medical work in Bombay, leaving her and their young son behind in Iowa City. Aging, the runaway husband remains “full of optimism and plans for the future” while his estranged wife is ever more embittered and baffled by her fate:
She was never able to get a university appointment in paleontology although it was the only subject that had ever interested her. She did not understand…. She could upset people, [her son] knew that, could push people away when she thought she was drawing them in…. Everything was clouded by her ambition. She did not have the capacity to see herself as being at fault…. Each rejection made her harder and more unforgiving. Joseph’s father left her with no money. She could not ask for help. All she had was her independence.
In the sixty-three-page story that concludes the collection, “Acts of Memory, Wisdom of Man,” an Indian-born couple flee political strife in India at the time of partition to settle in Iowa City, where the man, a specialist in gall bladder surgery, is embraced by the hospital community:
I realized when I was young that it was my father’s Englishness that was admired and that made him acceptable: his manners and accent; his refinements and clothes; his stories of picnics at Oxford with friends from Christ Church…. We grew up without Bible or Koran.
This marriage, too, flounders, as the wife becomes increasingly Americanized, and then, by 1968, radicalized, and the political division in the United States between pro– and anti–Vietnam War sentiment is paralleled in the household. The slowness of his narrative, recounted by a now middle-aged, ophthalmologist son long after the family’s breakup, allows the reader to predict the double, melodramatic ending; but the portraits of the Indian couple are precisely drawn and memorable.
The most extreme, least sympa-thetic, and least credible of Murray’s independent-minded female characters is the wife of the carpenter Danny Dalton of “The Carpenter Who Looked Like a Boxer,” a resident in psychiatry who, in the intimacy of her marriage with a very physical, crude-mannered but naive man, revels in sadomasochistic sex:
It had all seemed very strange to [Danny Dalton], a revelation when she brought out a suitcase full of steel handcuffs, a leather hood, and a stock whip of the type he’d seen used to round up sheep. He didn’t understand her need to be tied up and beaten, but she was excited by it in a way he had never seen before—it was almost like a compulsion—and she was turned on by the violence.
It may be that, in life, sadomasochists can be estimable individuals, to be taken seriously, but in fiction such characters tend to appear silly, as in a Woody Allen film; and Danny Dalton’s uninflected, unironic consciousness does nothing to convince the reader otherwise.
It’s no surprise that the strongest story in this collection is a first-person account of the horrific experiences of a multinational team of medical workers in a Congo refugee camp in the late 1990s. “Watson and the Shark” is less tangled in background exposition and family history than the other stories, and moves with suspenseful fluidity:
…I could see that every eye was fixed upon me and I felt that sense of power and control that I needed then—this was why I was a trauma surgeon—and I wanted life-or-death, all-or-nothing situations. Life or death. That was why I was there in the jungle, and I honestly had a tremendous feeling of being in the right place and of being filled with a certain glorious energy.
Contrasted with the narrator is a Catholic missionary whose humility and stubborn faith in the midst of catastrophe would seem to doom him to a tragic-heroic fate, as in a Graham Greene novel of sacrifice in the face of futility. There are also the Russian helicopter pilots hired by the US government to fly emergency supplies into the countryside, as they’d done previously in Somalia for very good wages:
“Really, this is like an escape for us,” [the Russian pilot] told us. “It is good for us to get out of Russia. To be frank, we are running away…. Like all the people who are coming in to help are running away from something…. You don’t come into these places out of goodness of heart. No.”
The story takes its title from the eighteenth-century painting by John Singleton Copley, Watson and the Shark, painted in homage to an actual event that occurred in Havana Harbor, Cuba, in 1749. This famous painting of a heroic “moment of rescue and salvation” confirms for the narrator the necessity of his risk-taking in the Congo.
By the story’s violent end, the idealistic medical workers, to save themselves from being massacred, must bribe marauding “rebel soldiers” with everything they have, including clothes, shoes, and razor blades, and the helpless, unarmed refugees under their care. There is a bloody, protracted slaughter in a church, after which the medical workers are rescued by a team of Belgian UN soldiers:
In Paris, I had the sensation that I was weightless. Barely visible to the people around me. Perhaps you have to become nobody to understand who you are. I realized that I could not go home to the things that are comfortable to me. This was a strange kind of realization and it has come silently and imperceptibly, like a layer of frost gathering overnight on a piece of cold glass.
John Murray has clearly been influenced by Andrea Barrett, whose meticulously researched long stories in Ship Fever and Servants of the Map deal similarly with obsessed scientists and naturalists, doctors, explorers, and even coleopterists. Both Barrett and Murray write of heroically misguided people who squander their energies in field research intended to refute Darwin’s theory of evolution. “When there is only one [butterfly] of its kind,” writes the grandfather of the surgeon-narrator of the long title story, “with no clear survival advantage to being of such magnitude and color, then it must surely have been placed here by a divine hand.”
In outline, David Marshall Chan’s Goblin Fruit would seem wholly in the mode of a conventional “debut” story collection by a young university-educated (Yale, UCLA) writer now “living in New York City.” The nine stories focus on childhood, family background, coming-of-age in Los Angeles in the waning, media-saturated years of the twentieth century. A virtually unchanging narrative voice persists from story to story and there are linked references and implicit assumptions that suggest that the stories are really fragments of a novel or memoir. Two of the stories are so raggedly composed as to suggest earlier work spliced in among more accomplished stories. Yet, from the opening sentence of the first, powerful story “Lost Years” through the final, elegiac “Open Circles,” David Marshall Chan’s voice is haunting and original.
Goblin Fruit confounds our expectations of “American-ethnic” fiction. Not much is made of the clash of races or cultures here. Little is made of the clash of generations. A disaffected young Chinese-American feels so little emotional identification with his so-called ethnic roots that he observes his own brother’s funeral with an impersonal pity:
Now I realize that despite the show and pomp, the Chinese spectacle, all of it was probably very cheap. It was the way of the Chinese here in America. In the living and in the dying, there was the inevitable sweat, the inescapable poverty, the penny counting. The rusted trombones and frayed marching costumes passed down and reused, never new; the rice wine poured in shot cups for ghosts at the graveyard eventually poured back into the bottle….
There is something chilling, though surely illuminating, about a boy for whom the natural way of describing his background is to note that his high school had been used in the filming of Rebel Without a Cause and that two of the Manson murders had taken place in a house in his neighborhood.
Coincidentally the first story in Goblin Fruit begins with butterflies: “Out there on the road we didn’t have much to do, so when the orange butterflies first appeared to us they were a welcome distraction.” Two young Chinese boys from Chicago have been abducted by their father from their mother, put alone on a plane, and sent to Los Angeles to live with their father’s parents. Little is explained to the boys and they ask few questions. Months later, they have been uprooted again, packed into their grandfather’s car and driven in the direction of Vancouver, British Columbia, where in that city’s large Chinatown their grandparents believe they might “lose” themselves. The long, monotonous drive is punctuated by swarms of monarch butterflies migrating along the coast from Canada to Mexico: “Sometimes their number seemed endless, flying together like a blanket in front of the windshield, blocking our grandfather’s view.” Butterflies are not images of fleeting beauty here, but of an appalling blind mass instinct.
The journey to Vancouver is meandering, desultory: “Some cities we drove through like ghosts: we appeared and then we disappeared.” The story ends with the abducted boys in their grandfather’s car, approximately two hours from the Canadian border and listening for (imagined) sirens. “And that was the beginning, the start of the lost years.”
In “Goblin Fruit,” a young man impersonates his brother, who had been a notable Asian child actor before he was killed in a helicopter accident while making a film. The narrator, formerly “D,” is now “M.” His career is sporadic, disappointing: he can only get work on such projects as a Star Trek rip-off called Z-Star II. He is working on a screenplay, heavily derivative of other films, called Goblin Men. To support himself he develops electromicroscopic photographs at a medical center:
…The AIDS and cancer patients would be surprised by the beauty of their illnesses, shocked to discover we keep a gallery of their cells’ most attractive and exquisite mutations, our exhibit of faces and crosses and half moons on the wall.
He tries to feel his brother’s loss, in vain. He studies A Course in Miracles in the hope of feeling “more positive” about himself. He regrets he didn’t study kickboxing instead of going to Yale.
David Marshall Chan’s Los Angeles is a sequence of highly charged yet static images, a curious admixture of the vaguely threatening and the banal, as in a De Chirico painting. On Mulholland Drive the narrator is struck by an enormous estate where life-sized statues have been carved in black stone to resemble groundsmen working in front of the house. In the night, an enormous neon pie revolves above the Palace of Pies Coffeehouse, attracting great swarms of insects that, when the light is switched off, remain for a moment hovering in the air, confused: then “in an act of faith and with great purpose, they’d quickly reorient themselves and fly, blindly and crazily, towards the nearest light.” On a freeway, the narrator notes a Don Kott auto dealership electronic billboard: MEMORY IS MORE INDELIBLE THAN INK. Homeless men are in the business of selling “bugs”—ladybugs—door to door, in a well-intentioned civic philanthropic project:
When it rained, these homeless bug vendors wandered the streets wearing shiny, metallic-looking smocks…, guarding their precious eggs from the wetness beneath this makeshift silver rainwear. Their shiny outfits dragged along the ground so that they seemed to float as they drifted slowly down the wet streets, looking like ghosts from some distant, unnamed future: an era of silver clothes and silver eggs and constant rain.
In “Brilliant Disguise” the narrator, now in his twenties, recalls when he’d been a boy living with his parents in “a section of Los Angeles that had no name” but was close by a prime real estate area named Silver Lake where more affluent Asians lived. His father supported his family by professional wrestling, of which he was too ashamed to speak, playing villains like Mr. Moto (“Even though we’re Chinese”) and the masked Yellow Angel, doomed in the choreography of pro wrestling always to lose crucial matches against blue-eyed American wrestlers like Fabulous Frank Fortune:
In the black and white world of the wrestling stage, with its pantheon of heroes and villains, my father always played the heavy. He was the inscrutable one, the devious Oriental who will do anything to win and who can never win fairly…. He plays the threatening jap, the one who’s booed, who’s told to go back to where he came from.
“Brilliant Disguise” is an entertaining, cryptic account of the evolution of wrestling after the end of the cold war: overnight the villainous Russians disappear, replaced by such crowd-infuriating characters as Rockin’ Ricardo Ramon, the Cuban immigrant who yells, “I don’t want just a stinking crumb of the American pie…. I want the whole thing!” and the Cherokee Hunter Goingsnake who enters the ring “for the dignity and ghosts of his ancestors.”
A predominant theme in Goblin Fruit is the desperate mythologizing of fantasy “heroes,” whether grotesquely costumed wrestlers, comic book starship explorers, or boy sleuths solving such cases as The Secret of the Chinese Boat. If there is a time-specific feature in American literature of the twenty-first century, very likely it will mirror Chan’s preoccupations with pop-culture images that transcend, or obliterate, ethnic and family identity. Passion is replaced by wistful yearning as in a perpetually suspended adolescence.
By the end of Goblin Fruit, the young narrator has made a journey of sorts, but to what purpose? He is one who yearns to believe in miracles, yet lacks faith. He’s a pilgrim without a pilgrimage who observes: “When you live in Los Angeles, there is nowhere to run away to.” Goblin Fruit is an uneven collection yet a fascinating cri de coeur by a young writer of promise and substance. Perhaps most admirably, it resists an upbeat “mythic” ending as the narrator recalls cutting high school to ride a bus through Chinatown and seeing a seemingly endless freight train:
The names of long-bankrupt companies appeared on the cargo box sides in worn paint, passing before me like a parade of apocrypha. The boxcars spoke of better, simpler days, a time when rails stretched across the entire nation. Now, most of the vessels held nothing, the few full ones carrying animals going to slaughter, cattle with swishing tails who stared vacantly back at me through the slate boards with blinking eyes.
Where both John Murray and David Marshall Chan incline toward longer, less defining forms like the novel and the memoir, Ann Cummins is a natural short story writer. To judge by the verve of the more accomplished of the twelve stories of Red Ant House, Cummins is a natural storyteller as well: one for whom “story” means an oral, idiomatic telling in the mode of Eudora Welty, Grace Paley, and Bobbie Ann Mason. When we read writers whose work is dominated by the rhythms of the spoken voice we can have the mistaken impression that such stories spring into language with little effort on the writer’s part, since there is so little effort in the reading. Yet such “artlessness” is supreme art.
Moreover, to say that storytellers are not concerned with ideas in the highly explicit way of, for instance, John Murray isn’t to say that there are not ideas implicit in their work but rather that the storyteller hopes to evoke in her reader an emotional experience that can translate into an intellectual experience, as similar experiences in our lives, deeply felt but unarticulated, can move us to think, and to think profoundly. The lyric short story, in contrast with the more self-consciously composed, meditated story, is akin in its aesthetic effect to the art of watercolor, which must be quickly and unerringly executed and in which thinly layered washes and bare, untouched spaces are as crucial to the composition as its ostensible subject.
The stories in Red Ant House are set primarily in Colorado (Leadville, Durango) and New Mexico, on or near a Navajo reservation in the vicinity of the small city of Farmington. The earliest stories are told from the quirkily imaginative perspective of a young girl whose father works for a uranium mining company, many of whose less- skilled laborers are Navajos. All but three of the stories have to do with the adventures of girls and women. It’s difficult to suggest the fey, funny, quicksilver rush of Cummins’s prose except by quoting it:
The first time I saw this girl she was standing at the bottom of the coal pile. I thought she was a little wrinkled dwarf woman, with her sucked-in cheeks and pointed chin. She had narrow legs and yellow eyes. They had just moved into the old Perino house on West 2nd. This was the red ant house.
I wouldn’t mind a fat man. A fat man would be somebody you could wrap yourself around and never meet yourself coming or going. If I married a fat man, I’d draw stars on his back every night. I’d say, How many points does this star have? Now pay attention, termite, I’d say. How many points does this star have?
The precocious little girl of “Red Ant House” who torments her only friend Bean (the “little wrinkled dwarf” girl) is one of six children in a harassed Catholic household. Beyond her deadpan narration of surreal neighborhood events and family mishaps is a desperately sick mother who endures repeated pregnancies and miscarriages:
My mother was down sick all that summer. The doctor had prescribed complete bed rest so the baby would stay in. For the last three years, she had gone to bed again and again with babies that didn’t take.
In a grisly scene chattily recounted by the precocious daughter, one of the mother’s miscarriages is discovered by her children as “a little blue baby on a bloody sheet.” The mother refuses to summon help, and nearly bleeds to death in the living room of their house for her husband to discover when he returns home from work. In the companion story “Trapeze,” the family has been moved to New Mexico where they have quarters on a Navajo reservation near a uranium mill. Here the girl, Karen, is herself bullied by a Navajo girl named Purple, so called because she always wears the same oversized, frayed purple sweater. Karen is both intimidated by Purple and drawn to her, as to a more vibrant, reckless self: “Every day, Purple cooked up some new torture for me. She was smart in that way. It’s like she walked into my head and poked around and found my secret-desire room.” Yet Karen does not tell her parents or school authorities as if, in a way, she is protective of the Navajo girl. At the story’s end, Purple is revealed as the more vulnerable of the two girls, pregnant in junior high school:
[Purple] looks odd without her sweater, like some little girl playing at acrobatics. But she has this round ball of a belly…. She’s tossing herself every which way, and suddenly I want to scream at her: YOU DID THIS TO YOURSELF! In my head I’m screaming it.
She’s just throwing herself all over that bare sticky floor, like she’s trying to shake that baby out of there.
In the most powerful stories of Red Ant House girls and young women confront physical threats: from the gritty, grueling high desert landscape of the Southwest, and from men. In “Headhunter,” a young woman driving alone to visit her dying father in a desolate mountainous area is stalked by a Mexican man who tailgates her, passes her, slows down, brakes to a stop, and blocks the road in front of her. Panicked, she reacts impulsively:
…She threw the gearshift into first, rammed him hard. His car leapt and the door snapped on him. He fell back in, and she rammed him, saw him sit up in the seat,…rammed him again, then jammed her foot on the brake, put her hand over her mouth, and watched the [other car] slip over the edge of the mountain.
The weakest stories of Red Ant House are told from the perspective of boys or men. In “Blue Fly,” for example, not very convincingly set in 1903 in the wilds of Durango, Colorado, an orphaned brother and sister live with their older brother and his nineteen-year-old, seductive wife in a “soddy”—the dug-out foundation for a house that hasn’t yet been built. Why these oddly assorted characters? Why their overly specified yet largely unexplored relationships? Why 1903? In another random-seeming story, “Crazy Yellow,” a fatherless young boy awaits his mother’s return from having hospital tests, in the company of a quirky, garrulous neighbor.
Though one comes away with the sense that Red Ant House has been, for all the dazzle of its strongest stories, somewhat prematurely assembled, the collection is a conspicuous achievement for a young writer.
Curled in the Bed of Love, co-winner of the 2003 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and Catherine Brady’s second collection of short stories, is the most traditional of the collections reviewed here. These eleven carefully crafted stories, primarily about women past the first bloom of youth and uneasy in the choices that young middle age has forced upon them, might have been written fifty years ago. Which isn’t to suggest that Brady’s stories are dated but rather that the mode of fiction to which they belong, which has been called “psychological realism,” is timeless.
It is ironic that Brady’s name should be linked with that of Flannery O’Connor, since no two writers could be more temperamentally unlike. Where O’Connor’s imagination is fundamentally allegorical, and her characters tend toward a comical cartoon simplicity even as they are smote down by the Eternal, Brady’s characters are painstakingly particularized, emotionally complex, of their time and place: northern California in the late decades of the twentieth century. Where O’Connor is harshly punitive and unforgiving of the most innocent of sinners, as “sin” might be defined by a fundamental-ist Christian, Brady is sympathetic and unjudging: her stories celebrate the ordinary humanity of small sins as of small triumphs, flawed but well-intentioned characters, imperfection. Brady’s women even forgive and befriend the men who’ve betrayed them. Where O’Connor’s stories are self-consciously crafted as rituals, in the post-Conradian mode of explicit literary symbolism that verges at times upon the surreal, Brady’s stories call no attention to themselves as artifacts; nor does Brady’s post-Sixties California of mostly Caucasian, mostly college-educated middle-class people contain any extreme or improbable acts. And where the Catholic O’Connor scorned sexual love as a carnal weakness, Brady writes of quite ordinary sexual, marital love with laudable precision and tenderness:
Here is the thing about loving a man who stumbles when it comes to words. Jay has an astonishing facility at speaking through his body, through his eloquent hands. When I curl up against him after we make love, he strokes my back, and my nerves tingle under his fingers, emit pulses that chase his hand as he repeats a delicate trace-work on my skin, the echo of the satisfaction of our lovemaking. Jay’s dyslexia might be what makes him so good at what he does for a living, just as it makes him so good with me.
In “Comfort,” a male character happens to be reading stories by Flannery O’Connor which he dislikes for their punitive nature:
I suspect the brutal way she goes about her business stems from that Irish last name of hers…. She makes fun of her characters the whole way through the story, and then she pounds them with something terrible…. I’d love a chance to ask old Flannery why she took it so to heart, the mean idea that salvation should cost too much, the eye of the needle and all that.
Where O’Connor’s world is suffused with the unsparing light of the supernatural as in an El Greco landscape, Brady’s is a world of familiar, wholly secular domestic scenes. In the opening story of the collection, “The Loss of Green,” a poet named Claire, who has fled a chaotic life of drinking, parties, promiscuous and punishing sex, lives quietly now with her husband at Point Reyes Station, a two-hour drive from San Francisco along the coast:
…[Their] house was built on the San Andreas Fault, the rift zone that records the efforts of the Pacific plate to move northwest and tug free of the North American plate, working for millions of years to take the coast of California, including the headlands to the west of them, with it. Geology is more metaphor than fact to Claire, and the secret strain in the earth beneath them makes her delight all the more in her solid house and lush garden.
Yet Claire invites a former lover, something of a reckless character, to spend time with her and her husband: Sam is her San Andreas Fault, to whom she’s still dangerously drawn, as if to test the solidity of her new life. “The Loss of Green” is notable for the clarity of its prose, the author’s wonderfully sharp, poet’s eye: pelicans are seen paddling in water “with timid fuss, like ungainly, plain girls invited to the ball after all—there’s something so pleased and modest about their tucked heads.” Where the former lover Sam once forced Claire to watch a snake devour a living frog, Claire’s husband, Russell, has taught her that “the world was a shell whose hinged mouth could be pried open to reveal a secret, smaller morsel of joy.” In such adroit ways what might be called an apocalyptic symbolism is demystified, given an intimate and consoling meaning.
“Curled in the Bed of Love,” the almost too determinedly upbeat title of a story about a gay man and his HIV-positive lover, seems less original than others in the collection: “cliché” and “soap opera” are acknowledged by the story’s characters, who strain to transcend them. “Light, Air, Water” is a more subtle tracking of the hurt of diminished love: a woman who has had a child with a man remains on friendly terms with him, but finds herself exploited anew when he requires her help in dealing with a much younger lover who has clumsily tried to kill herself. Perversely, she feels a kind of happiness at being needed in even this sordid situation: “I can’t tell if this pleasure is vindictive or born of some sympathy I can’t help….” It’s rare for a writer to explore with such subtlety and respect the curious symbiosis of the needy and the needed as Brady does.
Though these disparate story collections are, in their very different ways, unsparing and unsentimental as mirrors confronted in the starkest light, they yet yield, as such thoughtful writing invariably does, a kind of solace.
November 6, 2003
Porter’s self-mythologizing was a way of establishing personal identity: “Perhaps I am among the last few persons of my class and kind who were brought up in the house with two former slaves…of the original number of 39 in Kentucky” (quoted in Katherine Anne Porter: A Life by Joan Givner, University of Georgia Press, 1991, p. 452); and of establishing boundaries to link her and her writing with a “pure” American type as contrasted with a rising, ever more vociferous and threatening “impure” type: “This [a photograph of Leslie Fiedler] is what the Jews used to call a Kike—I don’t know what that means but this nasty smug conceited smirk is the front for the most indecent mind and the pickiest envy of talent I know and it is pure Jewish…” (Givner, Katherine Anne Porter, p. 414). ↩