Short stories are often the vehicle of choice for young writers seeking to make their mark on the literary world, so it’s refreshing when established authors choose to work in the genre. These collections display the skills of three well-known writers from diverse backgrounds, each with a unique take on contemporary life.
Perspectives on Native American life
In War Dances, his fourth collection (which features a dozen poems along with its 11 stories), National Book Award winner Sherman Alexie enhances his stature as a multitalented writer and an astute observer of life among Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest.
In the title story, a middle-aged Spokane Indian confronts the tension between traditional tribal culture and modern life as he watches over his alcoholic and diabetic father in the hospital while undergoing his own health crisis. “Breaking and Entering” tells the heartbreaking tale of a Native American film editor who commits an act of fatal violence in self-defense and must live with the consequences. And “Salt,” the story that ends the volume, is the moving portrait of teenage boy from the reservation who learns about life and death when he’s called on in his summer job at the local newspaper to write the obituary of the paper’s obituary editor.
Not all of the stories feature Native-American protagonists. “The Senator’s Son” is a modern morality play, as the son of United States senator is involved in an incident of violence against a gay friend, in the process exposing his father’s expedient ethical judgment. In “The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless,” the narrator is a seller of vintage clothes, a lover of pop music and a serial philanderer, “a small and lonely man made smaller and lonelier by my unspoken fears,” a status he shares with several of Alexie’s male characters in this edgy and frequently surprising collection.
The eternal appeal of music
Best known for novels like The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro offers a collection of five pensive tales in Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, that succeed in expressing music’s seductive power.
In “Crooner,” a chance meeting in Venice between an itinerant guitarist (a talent Ishiguro shares with his creation) and an aging Tony Bennett-like singer leads to an emotional encounter with the crooner’s wife as he offers a swan song for their marriage. That woman, Lindy, resurfaces in the story “Nocturne,” a meditation on the vagaries of fame, where she and a jazz saxophonist named Steve share a bizarre recuperation in a Beverly Hills hotel after plastic surgery at the hands of a celebrity doctor.
Ishiguro skillfully blends humor and melancholy in “Come Rain or Come Shine.” Its narrator, Ray, visits college friends in London whose relationship is imploding. The story veers wildly from broad comedy to pathos as Ray struggles to save his friends’ marriage. “Malvern Hills,” the story of a singer-songwriter and his encounter with two fellow musicians in the English countryside, and “Cellists,” the tale of an unorthodox music teacher and her enigmatic student, round out the collection.
Women and their discontents
Jill McCorkle’s Going Away Shoes concentrates on the plight of mostly middle-aged women struggling with the consequences of their flawed relationships. McCorkle is an acute observer of the foibles of domestic life, and in stories like the title tale, in which a woman is yoked to her dying mother as a caretaker while her younger sisters carp at her from a distance, or “Surrender,” where a grandmother must suffer the childish cruelty of her late son’s five-year-old daughter, she blends empathy for her characters’ predicaments with an unsparing take on those grim circumstances.
Still, McCorkle’s stories don’t lack for humor, as in “Midnight Clear,” where a single mother gets a new outlook on life from a septic tank philosopher who answers her distress call on Christmas Eve, or “PS,” a sardonic farewell letter from a woman to her family therapist.
The collection builds to a powerful climax in “Driving to the Moon,” as former lovers reunite while one faces death from cancer, and “Magic Words,” which features interwoven narratives of a married woman about to embark on an affair, a troubled teenage girl and a retired school teacher. Both stories are impressive demonstrations of McCorkle’s ability to infuse short fiction with an almost novelistic scope.
Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.