Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Few Favorite Stories

My students know my favorite stories, mostly. Each semester I encounter new ones. But I thought I would say a thing or two about the time-honored faves.

"Helping," by Robert Stone. This story was called to my attention years ago by my writer friend Mary Burns. Stone doesn't write many short stories, but his short story collection The Bear and His Daughter came out in the mid-nineties, and "Helping" was in there. When it was selected for Best American Short Stories in the late '80's, they found it in the New Yorker, I believe. A very smart, tough writer, tough like Hemingway could only dream of being, and far more complex and smart. This story tracks a MSW-type counselor, a Vietnam vet, on the day he comes yet again off the wagon. The story follows him, Elliott, through a series of triggers that result in this lapse, and then we follow him home for the inevitable clash with his lapse-weary wife, Grace. Nothing expected happens, and the sad ending of the story stalwartly occupies the gossamer line between hope and hopelessness that is implied in AA's realistic axiom and admonition, "One day at a time." I always think, this ending is earned. How can I do that in a story?

"Waiting," by Ann Beattie. I'm sure in the old days this was one of the stories that annoyed Beattie's critics, with its minimalist blankness and the numb inevitability of its mysterious ending, so perfectly the feel in the air in the '70's (and it will come again). But after another generation of different sorts of writers has weighed in and processed through, and after all the tone and voice and explicit conflict (a lot of this in reaction to the old minimalism), the worldly realism so fully specified (as in the stories after Carver -- I'm being way too general but trying to describe an evolution), Beattie's first person present tense is new and interesting again and, of course, contrary to her critics, she's not at all limited to it (see "Find and Replace," in her Follies collection). Her character, we're back to "Waiting" now, doesn't know much more than we do, and the story's slow revelation of its situations drags her and us through a day when whole life change is in the air for her. Her husband is gone. She will be moving soon. She will be alone. She will have to sell a lot of stuff. She will be alone. The story literally hangs in the air, like that moment when we reach the apex but haven't quite started down yet. The protagonist is making herself some lunch, and as if things aren't bad enough, she notes in the corner of her eye that her dog is sleeping through food smells in the air. It suddenly hits her the dog may be dead, which would be just her luck at this time. She can't quite look to be sure. She goes onto the front porch, very upset. Someone finally comes by to help her. She's crying. The friend goes inside to get something, water maybe, and she says to him as he goes, "If you see anything wrong, please just take care of it." As with Stone's story, the end leaves much hanging, but the dog finally comes wagging to the screen door and is fine -- letting us know that this at least was a worry that would turn out okay; and so, trapped inside this woman's point of view, we wonder what else in her story is mere sadness and panic over things that aren't quite that bad and what is rational and much to be worried about. A very little story, masterfully representing an important stage we went through in short fiction that, make no mistake, informs the new wave and will come again. There is so much for the story writer to learn from this wise master.

"Customs of the Country," by Madison Smartt Bell. Like "Helping," this story was in Best American Short Stories in the late eighties. This story, too, was pointed out to me by Mary Burns. Bell writes it from the third person point of view of a struggling addict, a waitress, who alternates between violence toward her child (which results in hospitalization followed by foster care) and miserable lonely efforts to rehab herself in the eyes of the court and get her child back. She lives in an apartment in a miserable little apartment building that I picture as being like a two storey motel. The walls are very thin, and next door there's a couple. The male of the down and out duo next door is always wham bamming the woman, sending her crashing against the wall, knocking a cast iron pan off the wall of our character's kitchen onto the stove and then to the floor causing a nerve jangling clatter. This story too (Like "Helping") depicts the hopelessness of her situation and attempts to explain what her spiral is like, why she can't actually recover, why she can't actually get on top of her problems, why, instead, something very bad is likely to happen. Extremely well written, the story delivers a startling blow at the end and you're not likely to forget it.

Later I will talk a bit about "Design," by Richard Bausch; "Find and Replace," by Ann Beattie; "Passion," by Alice Munro, "Reunion," by Richard Ford; and "A Constellation of Events," by John Updike. In some sense, all of these stories are like Edward Hopper's wondrous "Nighthawks," capturing a small constellation of people in a frame -- giving us not only the tableau but the characters and the context in such close detail that we realize we could never have predicted the end and yet, in retrospect (I so love this), the ending we get is the only outcome that could ever have happened. Oh, and in these stories I like, the "ending" is never quite the end -- life will go on, the stir of issues and swirl of complexity will continue, the people flexing themselves against it all will show what they're made of on and on. When I write my own stories, these (and perhaps 50 others) play in my mind, their voices and their characters and the writing. Even though I know I can't quite get to their level, the journey is great and these master writers, in their best work, point the way.

Tell me some other short stories I should be sure to look at and why.

No comments:

Post a Comment