Edgy humor and fierce imagery coexist in these stories with shrewd characterization and humane intelligence, inspired by volatile material sliced off the front pages.
The state of race relations in post-millennial America haunts most of the stories in this debut collection. Yet Adjei-Brenyah brings to what pundits label our “ongoing racial dialogue” a deadpan style, an acerbic perspective, and a wicked imagination that collectively upend readers’ expectations. “The Finkelstein 5,” the opener, deals with the furor surrounding the murder trial of a white man claiming self-defense in slaughtering five black children with a chainsaw. The story is as prickly in its view toward black citizens seeking their own justice as it is pitiless toward white bigots pressing for an acquittal. An even more caustic companion story, “Zimmer Land,” is told from the perspective of an African-American employee of a mythical theme park whose white patrons are encouraged to act out their fantasies of dispensing brutal justice to people of color they regard as threatening on sight, or “problem solving," as its mission statement calls it. Such dystopian motifs recur throughout the collection: “The Era,” for example, identifies oppressive class divisions in a post-apocalyptic school district where self-esteem seems obtainable only through regular injections of a controlled substance called “Good.” The title story, meanwhile, riotously reimagines holiday shopping as the blood-spattered zombie movie you sometimes fear it could be in real life. As alternately gaudy and bleak as such visions are, there’s more in Adjei-Brenyah’s quiver besides tough-minded satire, as exhibited in “The Lion & the Spider,” a tender coming-of-age story cleverly framed in the context of an African fable.
Corrosive dispatches from the divided heart of America.
Lonely, desperate, obsessive characters inform the stories in Barba’s latest collection.
Barba (Such Small Hands, 2017, etc.), an acclaimed Spanish writer, is a master of the novella. Shorter than a novel, longer than a story, the novella is an underused form in American fiction. That’s unfortunate because, done right, it’s as exacting and harrowing as anything else you’ll come across. Needless to say, Barba does it right. His most recent book to appear in English contains four novellas. The characters they describe are destructive, lonely, obsessive. In one, a teenage girl, desperate to disappear, becomes anorexic; in another, a newly married man gives himself over to training for a marathon to the exclusion of everything else. They’re each consumed by the need to gain control over their own bodies. In Nocturne, which opens the book, a 56-year-old man takes up with a 21-year-old boy but can’t escape the fear that the boy will leave him. Like the marathoner and the anorexic girl, what he yearns for is a way to control his own desire, to overcome it entirely. Descent, which closes out the book, describes a trio of grown siblings and their tyrannical mother, who has fallen down and broken her hip. But as with the other stories, a plot synopsis doesn’t do Barba justice. These plots are deceptively simple. What’s not simple are the characters themselves, the ways that they struggle, and yearn, and fall down. Barba’s not eager to help them back up. There are no happy endings here, no false resolutions. Instead, we get the uneasy, unsettling mysteries we get in our everyday lives.
A gorgeous, fully realized collection in which each novella can be appreciated on its own as well as in concert with the others.
Twenty-two more stories from an author who died in 2004 and made it big in 2015.
Berlin (A Manual for Cleaning Women, 2015, etc.) published 76 stories in her lifetime in a number of small-press books. Three years ago, a collection that reprinted 43 of them took the literary world by storm, with placement on top-ten lists and comparisons to Carver, Paley, Munro, and Chekhov abounding. (The book was also a finalist for the Kirkus Prize for Fiction.) Blessedly, a second volume with 22 more stories is in no way second rate but rather features more seductive, sparkling autofiction with narrators whose names echo the author's in settings and situations that come from her roller-coaster biography (which is summarized in an appendix). The stories are arranged in roughly chronological order, beginning with two set in El Paso, Texas, about a little troublemaker named Lucha, followed by three in Chile. In "Andado: A Gothic Romance," Laura's family is invited to spend four days at the country estate of a man named Don Andrés. Her parents can't make it, so they send her by herself. "Ted said his child would be coming, not a lovely woman," comments the former ambassador to France, one of the wealthiest men in Chile. "I'm fourteen," Laura replies. "I'm just all dressed up for this party." This information will not have much effect on Don Andrés' conduct. The title story takes its inspiration from the period when the author was married to Buddy Berlin, a jazz player and sometime heroin addict, and the two lived with their kids outside Puerto Vallarta. It features cameos by Richard Burton, Liz Taylor, Ava Gardner, and John Huston, whose appearance in that area during the filming of Night of the Iguana is legendary. Its lightheartedness is immediately balanced by "La Barca de la Ilusión," which finds its protagonist in a palapa with a floor of sand on the Mexican coast, home-schooling her boys, hoping that living in the middle of nowhere will keep her husband off drugs. (What she does to his dealer is probably fictional, but we'll never know.) For black humor and alcoholism, go straight to "The Wives," in which two exes of the same man get together to chug rum and reminisce, spilling drinks and burning holes in their clothes.
No dead author is more alive on the page than Berlin: funny, dark, and so in love with the world.
The 17 stories in this debut collection take place around the world, exploring queer and interracial love, extramarital affairs, and grief over the disappearances of loved ones.
The book provocatively probes the aftermath—the aftermath of death, of grim diagnoses, of abandonment, of monumental errors in judgment. Passages jump back and forth in time to dissect how the consequences of a fraught event shape and unravel the lives of innocent casualties. In the searing title story, which references the Buddha’s birth, the narrator wanders around London while mourning her recent miscarriage. “I lie down now and feel the weight of it on me, a white dancing elephant that I can see with my eyes closed, airy and Disney in one dream, bellowing despair and showing tusks in the other.” In the evocative “Talinda,” among the strongest in the collection, a South Asian scholar named Narika attempts to justify her affair and pregnancy with her terminally ill best friend’s husband, George. “By thinking of Talinda as always being high above me, I could sometimes think of her as being untouched by what I had been doing with George. Like she had too much pride to be hurt by it. Like she had better things to do.” In the electric “A Shaker Chair,” Sylvia, a “polished, calm, perfect” biracial therapist, is both troubled by and obsessed with her newest client, the “slovenly” Maya. “Revulsion is what she makes me feel,” Sylvia confesses to a former supervisor. “The Bang Bang” incisively portrays the transformation of a crotchety father named Millind, whose “immigration history was spotted with failures,” into an acclaimed poet and “great man” at the same time his only son disappears. Millind’s daughter bears witness, though bitterly, to his newfound fame and resents his apathy toward her missing brother. “As if, because our father had found joy, my brother and his quiet sadness had to become invisible.”
An assured debut collection of stories about men and women, young and old, living and loving along the margins in Brooklyn and the Bronx.
In “I Happy Am,” one of nine tales Brinkley spins here about dreamers constricted or confounded by realities, Freddy is a young black boy from the Bronx who, at least for the length of the trip his summer camp is taking to the suburbs, imagines himself as a superpowered robot. Upon finding the house his camp is visiting to be “a bigger version of the apartment where [he] lived,” Freddy begins to wonder whether real life “spoke…to what his imagination guarded”: that there may be more potential for wonder and mystery beyond his dream life. This story shares with the others a preoccupation with characters’ reckoning with unfulfilled promises and unrecognized possibilities. The title of “J’ouvert, 1996” refers to an all-night revel originating at Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza during which a teenage boy, his wide-eyed younger brother in tow, intends to find, and assert, a grown-up self. In “A Family,” an ex-convict grapples tentatively, even a bit reluctantly, with the idea of becoming a lover to the widow of his closest friend. The title story is about a middle-aged man who believes his wife has left him and taken whatever luck he could claim with her, while “Infinite Happiness” navigates the dicey emotional maze of a lopsided romantic triangle playing out in the promised land of present-day Brooklyn. It’s difficult to single out any story as most outstanding since they are each distinguished by Brinkley’s lyrical invention, precise descriptions of both emotional and physical terrain, and a prevailing compassion toward people as bemused by travail as they are taken aback by whatever epiphanies blossom before them.
A vivid mix of stories that pick up and expand on Eisenberg's (The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg, 2010, etc.) signature concerns.
Eisenberg is among our most interesting writers of short fiction, author of four previous collections that track the dislocation of her characters in ways both large and small. Of the six pieces in this, her first book in 12 years, five appeared in venues such as the Paris Review and the New York Review of Books; one garnered an O. Henry Award. It’s not hard to understand why. Eisenberg’s métier is reticence: Her characters move through a world they find bewildering, with no easy strategy to reach out and connect. In the title story, an artist finds herself at the beach home of a rich couple, in a country that could be Mexico. What looks like paradise, however, is an illusion, a landscape on the verge of chaos from overlapping cycles of drought and flooding and the excesses of the expatriate economy. “So naturally,” Eisenberg writes, “local people who could leave were leaving, and a lot of the foreigners…who had places in the area were pulling up stakes, too.” Place, in other words, exerts a very shallow pull. The same is true of family, which echoes here like a set of lost opportunities, more obligatory than consoling. “Merge” revolves, in part, around the son of a corrupt CEO who liberates himself from his father by forging a $10,000 check. “Cross Off and Move On” looks back at its narrator’s three aunts, although, she acknowledges, “They come to mind not so often. They come to mind only as often as does my mother, whose rancor toward them, my father’s sisters, imbued them with a certain luster and has linked them to her permanently.” Here, we see Eisenberg’s approach to narrative, which is to tell us something both incidental and important and then follow it where it goes. The stories here are long, most more than 30 pages, and they take their time in getting to the point. But that’s OK; in fact, it’s the whole pleasure of reading her, the assurance that there is no quick fix, no easy resolution, that things are as muddy, as complicated on the page as they are in the world. What is never muddy, though, is her writing, which is sharp and pointed and direct. “In our small city,” she writes, “where darkness and cold go on and on and most things smell and taste like lint, I groan with longing.”
These brilliant stories invoke the desire for something other than what you've been given, which applies to us as much as to Eisenberg's characters, whose distracted desperation can’t help, in the end, but reflect our own.
In 11 electric short stories, the gifted Groff (Fates and Furies, 2015, etc.) unpacks the “dread and heat” of her home state.
In her first fiction since President Barack Obama named Fates and Furies his favorite book of the year, Groff collects her singing, stinging stories of foreboding and strangeness in the Sunshine State. Groff lives in Gainesville with a husband and two sons, and four of these tales are told from the perspectives of unmoored married mothers of young ones. The first, “Ghosts and Empties,” which appeared in the New Yorker, begins with the line, “I have somehow become a woman who yells,” a disposition the narrator tries to quell by walking at all hours as “the neighbors’ lives reveal themselves, the lit windows domestic aquariums.” Groff fans will recognize the descriptive zest instantly. The same quasi-hapless mother seems to narrate “The Midnight Zone,” in which she imperils the lives of her boys by falling off a stool and hitting her head while alone with them at a remote cabin, “where one thing [she] liked was how the screens at night pulsed with the tender bellies of lizards.” Ditto for the lonely oddballs telling “Flower Hunters” and “Yport,” the longest and last story, in which the reckless mother is often coated in alcohol. These are raw, danger-riddled, linguistically potent pieces. They unsettle their readers at every pass. In the dreamy, terrific “Dogs Go Wolf,” two little girls are abandoned on an island, their starvation lyrical: “The older sister’s body was made of air. She was a balloon, skidding over the ground”; their rescue is akin to a fairy tale. Equally mesmerizing is “Above and Below,” in which the graduate student narrator sinks away and dissipates into vivid, exacting homelessness. Even the few stories that dribble off rather than end, such as “For the God of Love, For the Love of God,” have passages of surpassing beauty. And Groff gets the humid, pervasive white racism that isn’t her point but curdles through plenty of her characters.
A literary tour de force of precariousness set in a blistering place, a state shaped like a gun.
As up-to-the-minute as a Kendrick Lamar track and as ruefully steeped in eternal truths as a Gogol tale, these stories of young working-class black men coming into their dubious inheritances mark the debut of an assured young talent in American storytelling.
We’ll start with Gio since his is the voice telling most of these interrelated stories of love, longing, and thwarted aspiration among men of color growing up in the hilly, blue-collar enclave of Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He is the mixed-race son of a professional football player named Lonnie “The Lion” Campbell, whose career, along with his mind, declined in shockingly abrupt ways. Dub, one of Gio’s childhood friends, dreamed of playing pro football though, as Gio recounts, he wasn’t as good as their other friend, Rye, who as an adult answers to the dual calling of dealing drugs and fighting fires. Then there’s Rolls, whose hard, street-coarsened manner belies a spirit romantic and inquisitive enough to become absorbed in photography. Each of these four young men, as different in temperament as they are similar in sensitivity, is enmeshed in struggles to break free of the constrictions imposed on his dreams by society and by himself. Gio, who has come into considerable money in part because of a settlement with the NFL over his dad’s untimely deterioration and death, is shown squandering these funds on drugs and other diversions in New York City while flashing gifts as a free-style rap artist. At least he gets out of Pawtucket while his friends struggle with their respective demons—and with the wise and often too-forbearing women in their lives. The stories are by turns comedic, bawdy, heartbreaking, and grisly. What links them all is the heady style deployed throughout; language with the same taut rhythm and blunt imagery as the best hip-hop yet capable of intermittent surges of lyricism that F. Scott Fitzgerald in his own precocious stories of youthful romance and remorse could summon.
The publisher says Holmes is working on his first novel. This collection makes you thirst for whatever’s coming next.
A posthumous collection of stories from Johnson (The Laughing Monsters, 2014), graceful and death-stalked as his work ever was.
Johnson (1949-2017) is best known for his writing about hard-luck cases—alcoholics, thieves, world-weary soldiers. But this final collection ranges up and down the class ladder; for Johnson, a sense of mortality and a struggle to make sense of our lives knew no demographic boundaries. In the title story, a successful adman nearing retirement offers a series of portraits of dead and disappeared acquaintances to reckon with questions of art, life, and integrity. “Strangler Bob” is a criminal’s account of life in a county jail that’s carried by its seriocomic tone (one fellow inmate recalls his wife and how “I sort of killed her a little bit”) until its knockout closing becomes prophetically biblical. Johnson had a great knack for finding and keeping a story’s narrative spine while writing about lives that are wildly swerving, a sensibility displayed at its best in “The Starlight on Idaho,” about a recovering alcoholic writing a series of letters that reveal his mercurial character and accidental poetry. (“I’ve got about a dozen hooks in my heart, I’m following the lines back to where they go.”) The two closing stories deal with writers whose brilliance and success haven’t guaranteed happiness: a poet in “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist” cultivates a mad and expensive conspiracy theory about Elvis Presley’s death, while an aging, ill writer in “Triumph Over the Grave” lives alone and is prone to hallucinations. Whether it’s a motivation to clean up or (more often) a prompt to think about the past, death is always Topic A for these characters. “It’s plain to you that at the time I write this, I’m not dead,” one narrator tells us. “But maybe by the time you read it.”
American literature suffered a serious loss with Johnson's death. These final stories underscore what we'll miss.
A lively translation of postwar stories from Kono (1926-2015), a Japanese master of the unsettling.
There is a moment in the collection’s penultimate story, “Conjurer,” when the protagonist, Hisako, thinks back to a fight she witnessed between her married friends. They were vehemently arguing about whether a magic show they’d seen was real, and Hisako agreed to buy a ticket to the show to help settle their dispute. As she ponders the couple, she thinks, “They’d been forced to acknowledge something in each of them and also something about their very relationship that they’d been unconsciously avoiding, and, forced to become aware of it, they felt betrayed.” This moment shines a light backward on the rest of the collection: Kono’s specialty is this avoidance of the unconscious and the moments when the darkness of her characters’ psyches finally spills out. In the title story, a childless woman balances a violent misanthropy with an obsession with very young boys. In the opener, “Night Journey,” a couple walks across town to visit friends with whom they’ve tentatively agreed to swap spouses. The Twilight Zone–esque “Final Moments” explores what happens when a woman bargains with death for an extra 26 hours to live. In “Bone Meat,” a woman whose boyfriend has left her becomes increasingly haunted by seemingly mundane objects—clothes, oyster shells—that push her toward destruction. Kono, who died in 2015, structures most of her stories similarly, with an unsettling flashback at the center of a story told in chronological time to show the ways that the dark seeds of our actions are planted, often unwittingly. And though the structures of the stories repeat and the protagonists resemble each other, each story unburies something that feels both thrillingly specific and surprisingly contemporary.
Kono should be an electrifying discovery for English-speaking lovers of short fiction.
Mark (Tsim Tsum, 2009, etc.) turns her poet's eye to the sublimely surreal in this collection of domestic oddities.
Over the course of 24 short, strange tales, Mark exposes the reader to the woman who loses her baby in the blizzard created when his caretaker begins to snow; the woman who marries Poems; the woman who becomes a tree to float her giant daughters to safety; the woman who does not eat the child. Though each of these characters is embroiled in a different danger, the sense of them as archetypes (the woman rather than a woman) and further as facets of the author's own lived experience filtered through a private symbology renders the stories at once both more universal and more personal. It is a fine slight of hand which Mark performs over and over throughout the collection: Language as precise and bitter as a pill is used to describe both the unknown and the unknowable; utterly impossible characters remind us uncomfortably of ourselves. The stories drift in the way of the best fairy tales—released from dependence on narrative sensibility to become both more odd and more true than any mere fiction. Many utilize a dream's abrupt authority. "Louis C.K., my husband, piles all my seahorses in the middle of our king-sized bed and starts shouting," begins "Let's Do This Once More, But This Time with Feeling." Other stories deploy a poet's love of words for words' sake in long, luxurious taxonomies: "The husband doesn't want his seventh wife to be sad and so he brings her Flounder. He brings her Mullet, Snook, Pickerel, Salmon, and Perch. He brings her Grunt. He brings her Bitterling and Milkfish. He brings her Tuna." Regardless of their form or feel, each is a fully rendered exploration of impossibility that loses nothing in its translation from the author's imagination to the reader's eye. It is a common cop-out to label the vagaries of nontraditional fiction written by women as experiments in language or voice and thus dismiss their agency in the "real" world in which plot-based fictions thrive. This collection, however, through both its humor and its sorrow, rings a universal chord. How to make sense of a world that refutes all sense and yet murders us when we cannot anticipate its next move? How to love in a world that uses our love as a weapon?
Stories in which laughter is sometimes the only response to sorrow, beauty is strange, and love is fierce and unending. A necessary book for our perilous age.
A bold new voice, at once insolently sardonic and incisively compassionate, asserts itself amid a surging wave of young African-American fiction writers.
In her debut story collection, Thompson-Spires flashes fearsome gifts for quirky characterization, irony-laden repartee, and edgy humor. All these traits are evident in an epistolary narrative entitled “Belles Lettres,” which tells its story through a series of increasingly snarky notes exchanged between two African-American mothers via the backpacks of their young daughters, the only two black students in their class at a California private school, who are engaged in some stressful and, at times, physical conflict with each other. The next story, “The Body’s Defenses Against Itself,” follows these girls, Christinia and Fatima, through high school and into adulthood as they continue to needle each other over issues of appearance and weight. (Yoga appears to be the answer. Or at least an answer.) The theme of self-image carries into the third story of this cycle, “Fatima, the Biloquist: A Transformation Story,” in which youthful romantic rituals, awkward as ever, are further complicated by presumptions of racial “authenticity.” In these and other stories, Thompson-Spires is attentive to telling details of speech, comportment, and milieu, sometimes to devastating effect. The title story carries a subhead, “Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology,” that only hints at the audacity, drollness, and, in the end, desolation compressed into this account of an altercation outside a comic book convention between two young black men, a flamboyantly costumed fan and an ill-tempered street entrepreneur. It seems difficult for even the most experienced storyteller to achieve an appealing balance of astringency and poignancy, and yet Thompson-Spires hits that balance repeatedly, whether in the darkly antic “Suicide, Watch,” in which an especially self-conscious young woman named Jilly struggles with how best to commit suicide (and to tell her friends about it on social media), or in the deeply affecting “Wash Clean the Bones,” whose churchgoing protagonist struggles with her soul over whether she should raise her newborn son in a racist society.
In an era when writers of color are broadening the space in which class and culture as well as race are examined, Thompson-Spires’ auspicious beginnings augur a bright future in which she could set new standards for the short story.
Ten short fictions from the late Irish master (1928-2016) explore love, betrayal, and the ways that people cope with life’s blows.
There’s a distinct shortage of happiness in this book, not least because it’s a reminder that Trevor (Selected Stories, 2010, etc.) is no longer writing. The stories themselves make up a grim group, dealing in theft, extortion, and infidelity. In the opener, “The Piano Teacher’s Pupil,” a boy’s musical talent comes with a light-fingered larceny. The teacher exemplifies Trevor’s uncanny skill in compression, defining the milestones of her life by one room and three sentences, noting how memory can ease pain: “If a beloved lover had belittled love it mattered less in that same soothing retrospect.” Theft arises again when a prostitute steals the savings of a man suffering from a memory disorder (“Giotto’s Angels”). “The Crippled Man” ends with a woman concealing her handicapped cousin’s death to keep his pension coming. Trevor paints the cousins’ lives in rich, sharp strokes while working in the marginal existence of two itinerant Carinthian house painters and the way a woman’s tough economies might benefit from a carnal arrangement with a butcher. In “At the Caffè Daria,” two women, once friends, meet years later after the death of the man who married one and then left her for the other. Another fickle male lover appears in “An Idyll in Winter,” barely touched by the pain he cavalierly inflicts on his wife and a former pupil. “Mrs Crasthorpe” is a widowed woman whose name partly defines her as crass, but while she dies in alcoholic squalor, sympathy is stirred by her trials with a son who is a recidivist flasher.
As always, Trevor navigates the rough seas of human relations with a new angle, fresh language, deep sympathy, and uncanny insight.