A collection of vignettes from the American stew pot, written for broadcast on National Public Radio by men and women from every racial, cultural, and economic stratum.
Auster, who proposed the National Story Project in 1999 and has been reading the results on NPR ever since, has received more than 4,000 submissions since the project began. He culled 179 of them for this volume, few more than two or three pages long, some as brief as half a page. Placing no limits on subject matter, Auster asked his listeners only for anecdotes that “revealed the mysterious and unknowable forces at work in our lives.” What he got were tales ranging from spectral apparitions in the bedroom to painful custody trials, with a preponderant emphasis on childhood memories. The collection he shaped from this material encompasses the comic and the tragic, the absurd and the surreal, the mundane and the ethereal. The title story, for instance, recounts a bizarre incident from the writer’s youth, when his father in a burst of justifiable irritation told a cranky neighbor to “drop dead”—and the neighbor did. “The Chicken,” which opens the collection, is a provocative six-sentence tale about a bird’s adventure on the streets of Portland, Oregon. The volume is divided somewhat arbitrarily into 10 chapters, beginning with “Animals” and concluding with “Meditations”; “War,” “Death,” “Love,” and “Slapstick” fall in between. The prose can be awkward, pretentious, or occasionally elegant, but for the most part it’s simple and direct. “A Shot in the Light,” for instance, relates the story of a man who was shot four times by a stranded motorist he had befriended. Victim and shooter survive, and the piece shows forgiveness on both sides, but the author makes no attempt to relate the incident to larger religious or political themes.
Bedside fodder for general readers and a bonanza for fiction writers looking for core stories to launch a novel.