New voices enliven the rich tradition of the short story
"Storytellers may be finite in number, but stories appear to be inexhaustible," Joyce Carol Oates once wrote. The words of one of the genre's master practitioners have been proven true this summer by the large number of new short story collections lining our shelves. Though it may face stiff competition among readers from its distinguished cousin the novel, the short story form is flourishing, and the best new collections offer a blend of unique voices, styles and characters. A few of our favorites are featured here.
Dan Chaon's Among the Missing contains stories of families that have stepped off the path to the American dream, with characters left to figure out where and how they stumbled. "Safety Man" tells of a woman haunted by the untimely death of her husband and her reliance on an inflatable doll in making the transition to widowhood. In another story, a pet parrot becomes a vicarious object of hatred for a woman who is convinced that her brother-in-law is guilty of crimes his family refuses to acknowledge. Many of Chaon's protagonists are missing some key part of their past or future. In "Here's a Little Something to Remember Me By," Tom's life stopped during his teenage years when his best friend Ricky disappeared. Now, Ricky's family latches on to Tom, living their son's life through his. For Tom, who carries a dark secret, their microscopic observation of his life is oppressive, preventing him from reconciling himself to the disappearance. With his unusually perceptive voice, Chaon brings clarity to the confusion of people's inner motives.
How we fail to understand those who mean the most to us is one of the messages delivered in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's collection The Unknown Errors of Our Lives. Borrowing from her rich Indian heritage and experience as a newcomer to America, Divakaruni writes about young people learning to accept the errors of their parents and immigrants who are adjusting to the wild, unimagined wonders of a foreign land. Suffused with magical realism, these stories convey the seduction of memory, the exoticism of the East and the struggle to fit in with a new culture. "Mrs. Dutta Writes A Letter," chosen for The Best American Short Stories 1999 anthology, explores the cherished old ways of a grandmother, which turn into an embarrassment to her daughter-in-law. Whether Divakaruni is writing about the accommodations we make between generations or the eternal pull of home, her storytelling is poetic in its imagery and dynamic in the ebb and flow of its voices.
Dogwalker, Arthur Bradford's debut collection, assembles its cast of characters from the misbegotten and misunderstood of society. The disabled, disfigured and troubled star in these stories, along with dogs of all shapes and sizes. Some of the protagonists and their adventures seem plucked from the weird and warped headlines of a supermarket tabloid. In wonderfully straightforward prose, Bradford's nameless narrators reveal an almost banal acceptance of the strangeness of life. His ear for dialogue, along with a sensibility that matches the singularity of his subjects, brings joy and laughter to lighthearted tales (tails?) that wag the mind long after they have been tucked neatly on the shelf. An original newcomer, Bradford shows us how extraordinary and provocative a genre the short story can be.
The Man Who Swam With Beavers, a new collection from Nancy Lord, brings Native Alaskan-inspired myths to life. Lord, who teaches creative writing at the University of Alaska, brings an authentic voice and modern interpretation to the deeply spiritual and enduring legends of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific North- west. The persistent need for contact with the wild plays a key role in the title story, as well as the other dreamlike fables that examine our responsibilities to one another and to the larger environment. Irony rules as the tone of this collection, as protagonists and narrators as diverse as God, a 14-year-old son of lesbians and an enormously fat performance artist illustrate life lessons in unexpected ways. "Afterlife" gives us a man upon whom massacred animals take their vengeance. "Wolverine Grudge" presents a disturbed woman whose bottled anger and need for revenge bring out the feral in her. Ultimately, the characters are on transformative journeys; where they end up is always captivating.
And the first shall be last. Mary Ladd Gavell comes from a short story tradition that forms the basis for the other collections here. Unpublished until after her untimely death in 1967, Gavell was the managing editor of Psychiatry magazine. Her story "The Rotifer" was published by her colleagues as a posthumous tribute. A new collection of Gavell's work, I Cannot Tell A Lie, Exactly, demonstrates what a true gift she had for dialogue, setting and tone. It also conveys how lucky we are to have her stories more than 30 years after her death. Each one is a perfect gem, sparkling with the irony and guile that make the genre special. "Baucis" introduces a woman whose last words are misunderstood by her family, while the title story describes the preparation for a child's school play with the humor and good nature that make Gavell's writing timeless and bewitching. The opening story, a sadly sweet tale called "The Swing," mesmerizes readers with the ghostly visits of an aging woman's young son. The same sad sweetness bookends the collection in "The Blessing," in which three generations of women fall into familiar roles as they wait for the eldest to die. John Updike selected "The Rotifer" for The Best American Short Stories of the Century, but any of the pieces in the collection could be rightly chosen for this honor.
Kelly Koepke writes from her home in Albuquerque, New Mexico.