If, as someone once said, a novel is an evolution and a short story is a revelation, then this publishing season has brought revelations via new short story collections as prolific as summer raindrops. Since publishers usually see larger sales from novels, the number of collections being released this spring and summer suggests there may be renewed interest in short stories in the literary marketplace. Of these numerous new releases, six debut collections stand out.
ZZ Packer's story collection, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (Riverhead, $24.95, 238 pages, ISBN 1573222348) is one of the most heralded in recent years. The title story, which appeared in The New Yorker's debut fiction issue three years ago, focuses on Dina, a black Yale freshman engaged in "orientation games," group activities meant to promote bonding among students. In one such game Dina proclaims that if she were an inanimate object, she would choose to be a revolver a comment that transforms her from quiet honor student to dangerous outcast and ultimately to the realization that "'pretending' was what had got me this far." In Packer's stories, the protagonists, primarily young African-American women on the verge of some formative encounter, discover that they are outcasts, and that structuring their identity is more complicated than merely understanding the stereotypical difficulties associated with being black and female. They often pretend in order to get by or to get anywhere, then realize they're not where they wanted to be. Packer's beautifully constructed narratives and realistic dialogue mark this collection as the debut of an assured and original voice.
In Beth Ann Bauman's Beautiful Girls (MacAdam/Cage, $18.50, 186 pages, ISBN 1931561354), issues of identity once again play key roles. Bauman's girls, teens and young women are waiting for their lives to "unfurl," to see what lies ahead and who they will become. This process is never obvious, but is revealed through subtleties of language, dialogue and characterization. Bauman herself has been on the same road. The New Jersey native moved to New York City to become a writer a decade ago, temping by day and writing by night. Just days before September 11, 2001, in order to continue writing, she turned down a more permanent assignment at Cantor Fitzgerald, the financial firm hit hardest in the World Trade Center terrorist attacks. A year later she signed a deal to publish Beautiful Girls. It was a bittersweet triumph in light of losing so many friends, and that quality is present in most of the stories. But these characters are scrappy, "beautiful" girls, and the whole collection shines with a sense of hope, not sentimentally won, but acquired through perseverance.
What Packer and Bauman achieve with witty, yet truthful, voices and modern-day American situations, Mary Yukari Waters in The Laws of Evening (Scribner, $21, 192 pages, ISBN 0743243323) accomplishes by setting her stories in post-World War II Japan and relying heavily on the inner thoughts of her characters. What could have been a risky approach works admirably due to Waters' attention to detail, a way with description that mirrors the fragility of a country re-imagining itself after so much upheaval. As a result, quiet pervades these stories. The characters have lost family, property and traditions, their world forever changed by the war. Even in stories set in the present day, memories of World War II affect the way the characters treat one another. Of Japanese and Irish-American lineage, Waters lived in Japan until she was 9 years old, and her understanding of her characters' struggles with the intersection of East and West is first-hand and intimately felt.
The clash of cultures also features prominently in Oscar Casares' Brownsville (Back Bay, $13.95, 176 pages, ISBN 0316146803). The title refers to Brownsville, Texas, a border town on the Rio Grande with Matamoros, Mexico, in view beyond the banks of the river. Casares grew up there, and his stories ring with crisp dialogue and situations that explore the melding of American ways with Mexican traditions, a melding that produces not a hybrid life, but rather a double consciousness the idea of what seems possible for immigrants and Mexican Americans living in the United States compared to the reality of living here. Casares' characters are trying to figure out their identity, too, and, as in Water's stories, that identity is intensely defined by place, by being on the border of Mexico and the edge of possibility. Joshua Furst's characters are defined by their ages. Furst, who taught for a decade in the New York public school system, convincingly writes of the trials of childhood, and his characters speak with the realistic voices of children, teenagers and young adults. Unlike the other collections featured here, Short People includes short shorts vignettes under 200 words that, in this case, spotlight some aspect of child abuse or neglect. All in all, the kids in these stories are not living the happy childhood of their dreams. In fact, with few exceptions, these stories depict the difficulty of being young, the confusing nature of constant change and growth, and the helplessness of dealing with it all when you're too small to understand what's going on or to have any legal rights in enforcing some measure of control. The characters in John Murray's A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies (HarperCollins, $24.95, 274 pages, ISBN 0060509287) travel all over the world and yet remain disengaged from their own emotions. Murray, a medical doctor for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as an author, takes the scientific, analytical approach of his career and applies it to his writing. Most of the book's protagonists are scientists themselves or intimately involved in the natural world. If they evade their own emotional attachments and knowledge of their own intentions, they certainly know how to catalog their difficulties metaphorically by family, genus and species. All of them try, it seems, to find their places in a world made complicated and frightening by everything from political fallout to disease. But just as a good scientist looks to empirical evidence and follows stringent methods to prove his theories, these characters apply the same kind of methodological thinking to prove their own existence, their importance in this life.
These debut collections are all auspicious introductions to writers from whom much will be expected in the future. What these books show is that their authors are all storytellers in the best sense writers who know how to reflect the truth and make it clearer. They use fiction as a mirror to highlight aspects of our own lives. That is the revelation of short stories.
Bonnie Arant Ertlelt is a writer in Nashville.