There’s a number of short story writers who’d be famous except for the fact that they’re short story writers. Number one on that list is Wells Tower, who recently wrote the best short story collection of the year. You might need to go all the way back to ‘Jesus’ Son’ by Denis Johnson or ‘Rock Springs’ by Richard Ford, to find something that sets the bar as high as does ‘Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.’
‘The Boat’ hasn’t slipped my mind, by the way. It’s ironic that the only collection of short stories to have any degree of success in recent times isn’t one I’d put forward as an example of great writing in the short form. For me most of the stories seemed displaced and disingenuous. Only that first story justified any of the hype Nam Le’s book generated. It has to be said though, the first story is pretty fucking monumental and well worth the money you spent on the rest of the collection. Up there with the awe inspiring first story of Cate Kennedy’s ‘Dark Roots.’ In her case, the rest of the book’s pretty damn good as well.
Another two writers that should be at least as well known as Cate and Nam are Deborah Eisenberg and Lorrie Moore. Deborah Eisenberg is pretty much unavailable in this country outside of second hand book stores and public libraries, but get Jeffrey Eugenides indispensible collection of stories, ‘My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead,’ because you’ll find within it one of her stories — ‘Some Other, Better Otto.’ A story that proves a novel can be entirely superfluous in the hands of a master. And Eisenberg certainly is that. A story in my all time top ten.
In the Eugenides collection you’ll also find a piece by Lorrie Moore called, ‘How To Be An Other Woman.’ One of those stories that defines the kind of killing-me-softly love that eats out your heart as a reader, and leaves you with a mouth full of delicious pips you just want to savour for hours afterwards. Lorrie Moore writes, “Love drains from you, takes with it much of your blood sugar and water weight. You are like a house slowly losing its electricity, the fans slowing, the lights dimming and flickering; the clocks stop and go and stop.” Just released is a book of her short prose called ‘Collected Stories.’
A bright orange book. Kind of boring in appearance and title, but what it does do, is make you realize that some of the truest art in fiction is happening in short prose. All you need to do is venture out into these brief worlds. Into these glimpses of lives lived beyond the broad silver screens of feature length novels. And find there lives made up of fleeting moments rather than elaborate cinematic set pieces. Stories that don’t ask for whole chunks of our lives; that only ask to illuminate an hour or so of our time.
Deborah Eisenberg writes in ‘Twilight of the Superheros’: “And then, one day, he was living in a world all made out of paper, where the sun was a wad of newspaper and the only sounds were the sounds of tearing paper.” There’s a kind of impeccable bonsai craft to Eisenberg that makes me want to go out and chop down big trees. Of course I’m a tree hugger at heart. No matter what happens, Tolstoy will always be my personal god, but even he wrote brilliantly in the short form. Perhaps the greatest novella ever written (so say Nabakov and Gandhi) is one he wrote called, ‘The Death of Ivan Ilych.’
From the sublime to the hilarious. A brilliant paragraph of writing from Wells Tower’s story, ‘Down Through the Valley:’ “I saw Jane once each month, the day I came by to borrow Marie. Jane was prettier now that she’d given up alcohol for the herbal program Barry’d put her on. She didn’t seem to hate me anymore, and usually received me with a sour concern. ‘I was sorry to see you sneaking past the house the other night,’ she said one time. ‘It’s not good for you. Also, if you’re going to make spying on people a regular thing, you should fix your exhaust. Sounds like someone in a suit of armour getting dragged up the street.’” But it’s not just that it’s funny. The protagonist really is like a man in a suit of armour getting dragged around and the story describes the ways in which we can get lost in the wake of a relationship breakup.
So here’s three writers that could be as famous as Dan Brown, John Grisham and Stephen King, but it’s fine that they’re not. Fame always did have a few teeth missing from that golden smile of hers.