With an Introduction by Johnny Depp...
40. Speaking of endings, though without as much sex, I was hooked by the strong hipster style and narrative impetus of David Caspian Kang’s The Dead Do Not Improve, only to crash into a slightly annoying denouement. This alternates between third-person chapters following the investigation and musings of a San Francisco homicide detective on a couple of murders, and first-person chapters of a 20-something Korean-American English major, slacker, and would-be gentrified yuppie who knew the victims and fears he may be next. Though all characters kind of think and sound alike, the pop-culture-soaked cynicism and craven fear are endearing, especially when our hapless hero touches on what he says is a painful pivotal Korean moment in American culture: the Virginia Tech massacre.
And then, when we get to the ending of the complicated and violent plot, the author suddenly declines to explain what all happened and leaves it up to the reader! What is this, Hammett meets Henry James? It smells like teen cop-out, especially when you’ve got a character who obsessively digresses onto every detail and impression snapping through his neurons, and then suddenly he says “I have a theory but I won’t go into it” and doesn’t even bother to spell out who got arrested or what happened to certain characters just because he’s in personal bliss—so why the hell did he sit down to write this? I grasp the concept of “open endings”, but this concept must match the nature of your characterizations and narrative.
41. At least the narrator of Nick Dybek’s When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man doesn’t flinch (at age 30, recalling decisive events that ruined him) when he gets to the wrap-up. This is yet another novel inspired by Treasure Island (see #37 above), couched as a memoir of teen boyhood on a West Coast fishing island and how the boy discovers that his father and his chums have kidnapped the young owner of the fleet, and now what’s he gonna do about it? Betray his dad or obey morality? (Another recent novel is Andrew Motion’s Silver, a direct sequel to Stevenson. What’s in the water? I trust it’s merely that Stevenson’s truly great moral adventure is no longer being so much taken for granted as some kind of kid’s book.)
42. I Cannot Tell a Lie Exactly is a collection by Mary Ladd Gavell, editor of Psychiatry magazine, who privately wrote stories but didn’t publish them. When she died of cancer in 1967, the magazine honored her by publishing one of the stories, “The Rotifer”, about a class science assignment, which found its way into that year’s edition of Best American Short Stories, then was revived by John Updike for his collection of the century’s best stories taken from these anthologies, and then a few years ago all her stories were collected into this slim volume.
Many are sketches of growing up in backwoods Texas (which she did). The last, longest and best story is a very sympathetic yet ruthless portrait of a difficult family where the old mother is dying in the house with her middle-aged daughter and pastor son-in-law, and in her dementia she finally reconciles herself to the marriage she never approved.
43. The Man Who Knew Coolidge by Sinclair Lewis is a “concept album” of stories transcribing the blather and vernacular monologues of a blowhard businessman in various situations (playing poker, asking a relative for a loan, bragging to a stranger on a train, addressing his club) as he discusses his life and philosophy. He refers to Babbitt as one of his neighbors. Comfortable midwest middle-class satire with sad undercurrents of failure and desperation masked by the obvious hypocrisies. Rather successful, and not as dated as you’d suppose.
44. Dear Life by Alice Munro. Mostly rural Canadians in stories that often take place over years, related swiftly with telling details from one person’s perspective or another. The last four stories are autobiographical. Munro’s style is unpretentious and confident. These are all about ordinary lives with disappointments and tragedies for people who live long enough to endure them.
A friend who lived in Canada declared these stories “very Canadian”, for what that’s worth. Each story quietly grips you in its flow, and they’re generally about messages mixed, connections missed, lives subdued and frittered. I’d hate to think that’s Canadian. The story “Corrie”, with a curiously altered ending, also appears in the volume mentioned below at #60.
45. Better Living Through Plastic Explosives is by Szuszi Gartner, a Canadian who surely won’t be confused with Munro. Vicious, spiky, elegantly funny stories send up right-thinking people. Two tales are set in neighboring cul-de-sacs where things go awry: social devolution from vegans to carnivore, and (my favorite story), the collective first-person-plural narration of five angels who take over five teens to find out more about humanity and report their findings. Title story is about a recovering terrorist who tries to curb her impulse for direct violent action; funny despite predictable twist ending.
46. A Place in Time: The Port William Stories by Wendell Berry is a chronology of stories in a town, going back a couple of centuries, but with the emphasis on the wartime and postwar years. Some are crackerbarrel yarns and easygoing anecdotes. Others are written in an elevated philosophical tone that erases the cliched distinction and warning about “showing, not telling”, such as the very moving “A Desirable Woman” about a pastor’s wife in the years just as WWII looms. (Have only read first half dozen or so, but am so struck by it I must mention it already.)
47. Every Boy Should Have a Man by Preston L. Allen is a brief and breezy, yet conceptually dense fantasia on Jack and the Beanstalk calculated to brush against modern issues—especially slavery, exploitation, and the environment. At first it’s told from the point of view of a boy giant in a society where humans (called “mans”) are pets and food.
As it gradually dawns on the reader that this is a reinvented fairy tale, it shifts to the POV of a “female man” who has many tribulations. Brutal events are related in a rapid history and wistful, elegiac tone, with characters who ache in the heart. More a fable than an adventure (though loaded with incident), it’s all about things that pass.
48. The Buffalo Hunter by Peter Straub is novella about a guy in New York with a nowhere job, lying to his parents back home about having a wonderful fiancée, trying to forget his miserable childhood while mom is going senile long distance, spending his nights reading westerns and mysteries while sucking alcohol from baby formula bottles. For some reason, this procedure sinks him literally into the stories, although they take on different events and interfere with his life until he makes the decision (don’t do it!) to read Anna Karenina.
This grim fantasy literalizes the concept of escaping into a good book and suggests that such psychological retreats aren’t a good idea, which must be an unfortunate point for writers to consider. Not to mention readers.
49. House of Earth was finished by folksinger Woody Guthrie in 1947, according to the introduction (by Johnny Depp!), and he sent it to a movie producer for possible filming. Since the first of four sections is an orgasmically detailed sex scene between a sharecropping farmer and his wife in their Texas shack, as they discuss politics and economics, you wonder how he imagined the film. It’s not surprising that he apparently never submitted it to publishers during the era when D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller couldn’t be published in the US.
It’s written in an often incantatory songlike manner, accreting details in the authorial voice between the lengthy folksy dialogues with their continual tension of joshing insults and teasing tenderness keeping despair at bay. The first two parts take place all on one day, and the last two parts on another day a year later when the wife gives birth with a nurse/midwife’s help. They dream of building an adobe house (Woody evangelizes for this) but first must somehow own their own piece of land.
There’s an undeveloped deus ex machina in that the wife’s estranged but rich daddy secretly gave her some money before the marriage. The book is a static meditation or tone poem as proletarian literature, clearly late in the day for that movement but not necessarily dated. How can it be dated when the problems haven’t vanished?
50. Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich is a comic novel about a numbers-cruncher, obsessed with statistics for disaster and end-of-world scenarios, who gets mysteriously recruited into an indemnity racket as a “consultant” advising wealthy corporations about possible disastrous futures. Although he liaises with a gung-ho business-major kind-of-girlfriend in the middle of a flooded New York that triggers his media fame as a prophet, his “real” romantic interest is a woman with a drop-dead heart condition who spends the whole book safely far away and even as the paradigmatic “girlfriend in a coma” (to quote a Morrissey song).
Will our hero come out of his funk and learn to seize the day before it seizes him? Will he fall for his lost love’s communal back-to-nature impulses? Is an optmistic conclusion out of place? An amusing journey about the traps of selling and profiting from paranoia.
51. The Rage by Gene Kerrigan, an Irish crime novel that won a Golden Dagger. Swift, punchy, coldly violent, multi-character study of Dublin and its political, economic, and historical reverberations: the real estate bubble collapse and unemployment, the legacy of investigations into church abuse, the bureaucracy of police work, the workaday world of barely competent drones, the culture of crime. The two main characters, a homicide detective and a vengeful killer, never meet, and one of the crimes is never fully solved. The style is so “minimal” that you must look closely to notice how elegant it is.
52. The Book of Mischief: New and Selected Stories gathers old and new tales by Steve Stern in a generous collection. These are modern incarnations of Jewish folklore fantasies, written in the kind of dazzling and funny sentences that must inspire Michael Chabon. That humor and dazzle is needed, because the stories are often tragic and sometimes sour and bitter. Not only do they end frequently in death, but sometimes that’s a happy ending! And he will surprise you with a good-natured ending, such as in the absurd story of a Kafka scholar who finds he’s not quite prepared to write off life as his idol did.
The final long and wonderful story is “autobiographical” in that it’s about a Jewish fantasist writer/academic, also splenetic and melancholy, who finds himself at a Catskills wedding where the bride becomes possessed by a dybbuk. Is the ending happy? It’s hard to say. A particularly memorable story is about a boy who climbs a huge tree and discovers the land of dreams. Again, is the ending happy? You tell me.
53. Revenge by Yoko Ogawa is a very interesting arrangement of linked macabre stories in which an incident or character from one shows up in the next, including a woman writing some of these stories. Also, all these first-person tales alternate male and female narrators. The characters mostly live in the same neighborhood or work in the same hospital.
There are stories about a torture museum and the people who visit or work there. Very short, fast-moving, cold stories, full of dark incidents and disappointed obsessives, like the man who makes specialized bags and is commissioned by a woman to make a leather covering for her heart, which is outside her body. Don’t wait for happy resolutions here.
54. The Invisibles by Hugh Sheehy, which won the Flanner O’Connor Award, also has stories full of violence, usually visited upon the characters rather than committed by them, such as the opener about a young teacher confronting two killers. Harsh stories generally in Southern settings, so the award is appropriate. The semi-mystical title story is about people who disappear because they usually aren’t noticed except by each other.
Not all the stories are violent. A problematic loser son driving home for Christmas through a blizzard echoes a story from the parents’ POV in the Rutherford collection below (#55). The best story is “Translation”, which (spoiler! spoiler!) follows a man who wakes up with amnesia and finds he’s a college professor who got fired over faking a new story by Ovid that attempted to explain his own metamorphosis. That’s just brilliant, and the story is told with delicate suspense.
55. The Peripatetic Coffin by Ethan Rutherford has more stories, four of which are set on sailing vessels and use the word “topsides”. Two are based on historical incidents: the first submarine invented for the Civil War (narrated by a doomed crewman), and a Russian polar expedition (ditto). The last and longest story is set in a future where tank-ships trawl the desert-ocean beds for sandwhales (kind of like Moby Dick meets the sandworms of Dune).
All the stories are about what it takes to be a man: to meet your fate, to find your capacity for violence and/or death, the self-defeating wish not to be a wimp. The comic story narrated as an excuse or report by a director of a boys’ summer camp about “what you call the debacle” is a sharp analysis of escalation and war that should be redd into the Congressional Record.
56. The Devereaux Legacy is by Carolyn Hart, now a well-known mystery writer, so they reprinted this Harlequin Gothic from her wilderness years. A woman finds out her family is alive and depraved and living in South Carolina, when they all thought she died as a baby. The family legend holds that a ghost appears to signal imminent death, but in this Gothic tradition, we can be reasonably sure it’s a Scooby-Doo ghost. I don’t know why I redd it, except that it flashes by so quickly in its predictable mode.
Half the sentences are questions (“What did it mean? What would she find out?”) and every fourth or fifth sentence is “She shivered.” Transparent delays are required to prevent the heroine from finding out the story too soon, so that with virtual self-parody, someone with the inside dope literally drops from a heart attack as soon as she approaches, and then she delays going to visit him in the hospital until she’s blurted out her plans to do so.
What’s interesting is the Southern mansion setting, and the solution to the mystery is okay with effective misdirection that made me think of a different character. You can see Hart was already more interested in crafting whodunits.
57. The FSG Book of 20th Century Latin American Poetry. FSG refers to publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux, who published several of the titles here, sometimes on what appears to be off-beige paper towels. Original language on the left page, translation on right page, one or two poems per writer, with maybe four or five for the biggies. So far, they express the anxieties of coming to grips with a New World and new century.
I read the English first and then stumble through the Spanish (or Portuguese, or even French) to discover the rhymes and greater felicity in the original. I progress slowly and have only gotten to around page 100, which is up to Cesar Vallejo, though I skipped ahead for a couple of Borges. There was one Borges translated quite marvelously and rhyming, with only a couple of awkwardnesses, but the original was still so much more a slam dunk. The first poem by José Marti fairly knocked me on my ass.
One reason for my snail-like progress is that I go through it in conjunction with plowing through Martin Seymour-Smith’s section of Latin American poetry in his doorstop The New Guide to Modern World Literature, whose obsessively qualified disquisitions on who’s underrated and overrated should be enough for any one lifetime.
Intriguingly, he gives several examples of the same famous poems that appear in this anthology, but in different translations. Also, his casual reference to the fact that this or that person wrote a novel led me to request a couple of these obscurities through Interlibrary Loan, and they arrived from academic institutions, bless them. This leads us to:
58 & 59. The more trivial diversion is Vicente Huidobro’s bizarre and decadent adventure Mirror of a Mage about the fantastical alchemist Cagliostro in the era of Louis XVI. Huidobro describes this pleasantly artificial and self-conscious story (published in 1931) as his attempt to illustrate the influence of the cinematograph on the novel: rapid, image-driven narrative. (Too bad he couldn’t read some of those listed above.) Now and then he’ll drop in a remark like “Reader, consult what any other novel says about love and insert it here.”
An altogether different animal, though equally short, is Chilean author Pedro Prado’s Country Judge, which is nobody’s idea of a standard novel. Apparently something of a memoir, it’s about an architect (like the author) appointed to be a judge with no knowledge of law, and the first half consists of anecdotes of the cases. These combine the qualities of precision and off-handedness. Then the author and his character lose interest in law and it drifts into a study of our hero’s melancholy, which today might be called bi-polar.
One incident describes his amazement that his twin-soul artist friend (who also has a sick son, like he does) and himself have both sketched a house called La Mirador Viejo in completely different ways while standing next to each other, and later there’s a detail of how he emerges from the dark corner of a room to the surprise of others in the room, and these moments are united in the final image of startling himself when his reflection emerges from a dark corner and he realizes that this familiar figure, whose impulses are the same as his own, can never touch his hand through the cold glass separating them. It’s kind of a perfect place to stop, worthy of the New Yorker.
60. Astray by Emma Donoghue, a Scotswoman living in Canada, is a collection similar to Murray’s (see #27). All stories are based on real historical incidents or characters: Jumbo the elephant and his trainer prior to their move from London to America; a brother and sister in dire straits who meet Charles Dickens; a highly unconventional woman in the Old West (later committed to an asylum for her “crazy” behavior); a Texas slaveholder’s wife and the male slave; two Alaskan prospectors thrown into physical and emotional proximity; and several others. All are accompanied by postscripts that detail the sources, and the theme is immigration or migration to a new land and the sense of hope and/or loss engendered thereby.
The characters don’t all have unconventional sexual arrangements but several do, alluded to discreetly. These cameos into pivotal moments of their lives make for brisk, clean, uncluttered reads.
61. The O. Henry Prize Stories 2012, edited by Laura Furman, has 20 stories including one that turns out to be a horror tale from an author who won a Shirley Jackson Prize, and not knowing this in advance contributes greatly to its impact as its events creep over you. That’s why I’m not naming it.
There are characteristically serene, contemplative essay-stories by Wendell Berry (see #46) and John Berger; a perfect Steven Millhauser story (just add water) of essay-chunks on a town’s ghosts; Karl Taro Greenfield’s very good first-person account of a Japanese artist surviving WWII; Miroslav Penkov’s absurdly believable tale of a Bulgarian village cut in half by a flood; Yiyun Li’s extremely good novella of a middle-aged single woman in China; Jim Shepard’s socially engaged, noirish study of PTSD from a brooding, angry narrator letting self-pity and denial go round and round in his head; and Salvatore Scibona’s beautifully written, playful, unusually accoutred story about divorce, set in Iceland and featuring a dog.
How to describe Lauren Groff’s wonderful “Eyewall”? It’s told by a woman who drinks her way through a hurricane, looking at the carnage whirling outside and being visited by three ghosts, like Scrooge except they’re kindly ghosts who aren’t trying to convert her errors. Extravagant, metaphorical, almost disorienting sentences. This and the unnamed horror story are my favorites.
I want to address Anthony Doerr’s “The Deep”, the indirectly narrated viewpoint of a boy with a heart problem during the Depression in Detroit, and his love for a bold redhaired girl who loves underwater exploration. He’s always on the verge of passing out or expiring as the world shifts around him when he gets moved or too active. It’s interesting and sentimental, though the author indulges in poetic metaphors that are the writer’s thoughts, not the semi-literate boy’s. I suppose this Updike-ness doesn’t bother some people. It depends on how closely you want to say it follows the boy’s POV; it seems to be doing so 95 percent of the time, but then drops a stitch now and then with “ghostly armatures”, etc.
Also I was shocked that a character in 1924 flashbacks is called Ms. (twice!). I’m not surprised that a young writer would make that error, as you can see why it wouldn’t occur to him to research that word or notice he’d never seen it in pre-1970 writing, but I’m rather distressed that it’s gone through several editors without being corrected. Are they all ignorant whippersnappers? It even won a prize in England! And juror Ron Rash makes a point of praising the story for how the research is invisible. It sure is! Again, I don’t blame Doerr, but something that yanks readers over a certain age right out of the story cannot stand.
Mark Slouka’s “The Hare’s Mask” is a first-person childhood memory, or childhood memory once removed as the boy reconstructs his father’s undiscussed childhood during the Holocaust and how the son carries his father’s survivor-guilt by proxy. This is also in Best American Short Stories 2012. These anthologies don’t quite overlap, one being a fiscal year and the other by calendar. A few of the Best’s appendix of 100 recommended stories are in this O. Henry volume, and a few are in the previous year’s volume.
What’s interesting is when an O Henry story isn’t even listed in Best, indicating it didn’t make their top 120! That editor, along with guest editor Geraldine Brooks, complained about too many drab contemporary realism stories they had to sift through, but O. Henry has a wide array by American writers who avoided that, yet didn’t make the Best cut! Curious. Also curious that the most fantastical story in Best, by George Saunders, didn’t make O Henry.
Finally, Alice Munro’s “Corrie” (see #44) follows a callow architect who begins an affair with a partly-lame rich girl in a small town, and then the last half follows her thoughts as she comes to a revelation about their affair that might be her imagination based on her low estimation of herself. Reading about this story online from various responders, there’s some confusion about whether Munro “cheated” about the “surprise”, but I think that depends on whether you think there really is a surprise.
I think the story is about Corrie’s self-perceptions, and whether she’s actually right about what happened is secondary. It’s worth noting, however, that Munro altered certain parts significantly to make her meaning clearer in her own collection. If she’s going to workshop her stuff in public (and she’s known for it), perhaps one should only ever read the versions that show up in her own collections and skip them otherwise.
Lord knows I need any excuse to skip something. Alas. So many books to skip, so little time! Until we meet again, Dear Reader, keep turning those pages. Or changing those discs. Or downloading those doohickeys. Or whatever you do for kicks. While some say that a good book takes us out of ourselves, I tend to think it sinks us deeper into ourselves, but perhaps these are the same thing.