The award-winning author returns with another collection of stories distinguished by uncommon scope and depth.
Having won the National Book Award with Ship Fever (1996), Barrett has continued to command fictional territory all her own. Her latest collection of five stories finds her fiction typically steeped in science, rich in ideas, set in the historical past, and filled with characters who share the excitement, and some of the fear, of discovery. Framing the collection are two stories featuring the same protagonist, Constantine Boyd, as a boy of 12 from Detroit in “The Investigators,” set in 1908, and as a soldier amid the madness of war in the concluding title story, set in 1919 Russia. The first story is a masterwork of misdirection, as the boy investigates a world rife with discovery—of evolution, flight, family, identity, self (away from home, he flirts with calling himself “Stan”)—while the reader discovers the underlying story of the protagonist’s home life, the reasons why the boy spends summers with one uncle or another. Other stories delve deeply into the debates initially surrounding evolution, the popular but subsequently discarded notion of ether, and the darker implications of genetics (with the rise of Nazi Germany as a backdrop). Yet the characters are never secondary to (or mere mouthpieces for) the provocative ideas, as the stories explore relationships among mentors and students, scientific rivals, romantic attractions. She writes not only of someone “who still appreciates the poet’s wonderment in these days at the marvels of science,” but as someone who can recapture that wonderment decades after such marvels have been embraced or refuted. And she recognizes throughout the collection “how the theories seized on with such enthusiasm by one generation might be discarded scornfully by the next.”
Traps are embedded in the violence-streaked stories that comprise another fine collection from Rash (The Cove, 2012, etc.).
Take the excellent opening story: "The Trusty." That’s Sinkler, the unshackled member of a chain gang in the North Carolina mountains (Rash’s invariable setting). While fetching water for the gang, the accomplished grifter sweet-talks a farmer’s young wife into eloping. She knows the hidden trails, and that’s where the tables are turned, violently. In the title story, two petty criminals, hooked on pills, steal some gold teeth. They’re about to cash in, home free, but we know they’re trapped losers, sure to be busted. There’s an actual trap, a bear trap, in "A Sort of Miracle," the story of three knuckleheads on a mountainside. The unseen bear springs the trap and gets the ham, but the trapper dies as the black comedy intensifies. Of these 14 stories, it’s the two from the Civil War era that will haunt you. In "Where the Map Ends," two runaway slaves are heading into the mountains, where many of the whites are Lincoln supporters. How could they have known that the farm where they shelter belongs to a man unmoored by his wife’s suicide, slipping into madness? He helps the older slave but has a horrifying end in mind for his young mixed-race companion. In "The Dowry," the war is eight months past. Ethan fought for the Union. Now, he seeks to marry the daughter of a Confederate colonel, implacable since losing a hand on the battlefield. The story ends with a second severed hand. Also notable are "The Magic Bus," a ’60s story in which a naïve country teenager has her disastrous first encounter with hippies, and "A Servant of History." Here, a very green Briton, researching ancient ballads in 1922, traps himself on a remote farm by bragging about his half-remembered Scottish ancestors. What had started out lightly satirical turns very grim indeed.
Rash’s oneness with the region and its people makes an indelible impression.
A new story collection from the most playful postmodernist since Donald Barthelme, with narratives that can be enjoyed on a number of different levels.
Literature that takes the sort of chances that Saunders does is rarely as much fun as his is. Even when he is subverting convention, letting the reader know throughout that there is an authorial presence pulling the strings, that these characters and their lives don’t exist beyond words, he seduces the reader with his warmth, humor and storytelling command. And these are very much stories of these times, filled with economic struggles and class envy, with war and its effects, with drugs that serve as a substitute for deeper emotions (like love) and perhaps a cure (at least temporary) for what one of the stories calls “a sort of vast existential nausea.” On the surface, many of these stories are genre exercises. “Escape from Spiderhead” has all the trappings of science fiction, yet culminates in a profound meditation on free will and personal responsibility. One story is cast as a manager’s memo; another takes the form of a very strange diary. Perhaps the funniest and potentially the grimmest is “Home,” which is sort of a Raymond Carver working-class gothic send-up. A veteran returns home from war, likely suffering from post-traumatic stress. His foulmouthed mother and her new boyfriend are on the verge of eviction. His wife and family are now shacking up with a new guy. His sister has crossed the class divide. Things aren’t likely to end well. The opening story, “Victory Lap,” conjures a provisional, conditional reality, based on choices of the author and his characters. “Is life fun or scary?” it asks. “Are people good or bad?” The closing title story, the most ambitious here, has already been anthologized in a couple of “best of” annuals: It moves between the consciousness of a young boy and an older man, who develop a lifesaving relationship.
A sequence of six linked stories explores the lives of those who risk something for their ideals, which is not the same as, and produces quite different results from, risking something for one's beliefs.
Silber (The Size of the World, 2008, etc.) teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. She has won a PEN/Hemingway Award and has been a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Fiction Prize and the National Book Award. The title story begins with telegraphic directness: “A lot of people thought anarchists were fools.” Silber makes much of the difference between what it means to be a fool and being merely foolish. The former is so much worse. In “Fools,” a merry band of political idealists lives a bohemian life in New York in the ’20s. In the background looms the incarceration and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. The characters make love, marry, cheat on their spouses and scatter. The next story, “Hanging Fruit,” follows Anthony—the son of one who left penury for profit, then regressed back into poverty. “Two Opinions” follows Louise, the daughter of an anarchist, in jail as a conscientious objector. The legacy of her father’s radical politics costs her the life she imagines she wants, but she is merely mistaken and learns to provide for herself in novel ways, finding satisfactions she couldn’t have dreamed of, including the possibility that satisfaction is overrated. “Better” is the weakest in this worthwhile collection. Its connection to the others is tenuous. “Going Too Far” dramatizes a clash between the spiritual and the practical. It and the final story, “Buying and Selling,” are more completely realized.
A thought-provoking collection; “Buying and Selling” is particularly strong.