Short stories are, by their very nature, finite, and it is those very parameters that make them so artful in my eyes. It’s much like a snapshot in comparison to film. Not that movies are any better or worse than photographs, but the photographer has to craft the moment in a snapshot in a way that filmmakers (often) do not. The best photographs are those that seem to bleed beyond the borders, attempting to elucidate the objects or people contained within. A good short story does exactly that. My friend Jason Rice had his short story “Again, I Do, Redux” published over at Vol. 1 Brooklyn yesterday. It’s brief but fascinating to read about a guy who realizes on his honeymoon he’s made the wrong choice. There’s nothing simple about it, yet it’s so accessible.
I argue this quite a lot, even though short story collections are least written about on book blogs and other review outlets. I think the dilemma is not so much the reading of the short stories but the writing about them. How do you begin? If the collection doesn’t tie together in terms of interconnected stories or characters, how on earth can you review it as a whole? It can certainly be difficult, and most reviews focus on stronger, more interesting stories, while reviewing the writing overall.
But reading short stories is another matter altogether. Perfectly fitted to waiting rooms, traffic jams, class breaks, or bed, in the last 20 minutes or so before sleep, a short story collection sits waiting. Most collections are loosely connected and can be picked up and put down, unlike a novel where continuity is typically key. I find myself seeking out short stories when I’m particularly busy or no book on my shelves is too inviting. They’ve gotten me out of more than one reading slump, and the confines of the narrative and complexities of the subject matter continually fascinate me.
So today I wanted to highlight my short story writer trifecta, the three short story writers whose writing is simple but far from simplistic, whose work I return to again and again, never tiring of the beauty and humanity encapsulated in such brief spaces:
Part of what I love about short fiction is the payoff. When you read a novel, sometimes the payoff is long in coming. In short stories, you don’t have long to wait, and the first time I read “Cathedral”, I sat, book in hand, tears in my eyes. Because Carver’s characters are nothing special. They’re Joe Blow, shallow, jealous, profane, insensitive. They’re you and I on our worst days. But there is some spark, some moment that lifts them from their ordinary lives, and the result is profound.
Start with: “A Small Good Thing”/”Careful”
Cheever. John Cheever speaks to the lost magic and wonder of adulthood. His stories are often called “stories of suburbia,” but in truth, they’re about the humdrum life of the adult, and those ways in which we either fall prey to it or challenge it.
If you’ve read anything by John Cheever, odds are it’s “The Swimmer”. And, if you haven’t read it, click on that little linkamajink, stat. Cheever’s stories are rife with internal conflict, but there’s also a sense of wonder in his stories that never fails to amaze me because of the sober subject matter. “The Swimmer” is the story of a man who decides one lazy Sunday afternoon to swim across town in swimming pools. And if that sounds odd, just wait until you see where these swimming pools take him. When we discuss this story in my Intro to Lit class, I have students help me create a map of the pools along with complete descriptions before we analyze this epic journey. It never fails to involve just about everyone (and if you teach, you know how difficult engagement can be).
Start with: “The Enormous Radio”/”The Country Husband”
I would say, of the three, Dubus is the most different. Whereas Cheever and Carver’s characters are isolated, whether they know it or not, Dubus’ characters are so humane. His character sketches are so sympathetic and forgiving of human failings. These are people facing loss of different sorts, and they react in the ways we do or the ways we might want to but cannot or do not.
Again, to focus on one particular story, “Killings” is probably his most anthologized story. A mother and father grieve for their son, and justice is far from being done. Watching his wife is almost as painful as Matt’s own grief, and that grief leads him to act in the only way he can conceive. It’s heartbreaking, and his anger, guilt, and sadness are palpable, urging you to understand and forgive, even if Matt himself cannot.
Start with: “A Father’s Story”