Jack Pendarvis, “Lumber Land”

your-bodyDudley Durden, aged 50, and his boss, Lombard Cuff III, go on a stakeout.

(from Your Body Is Changing)

Dud was sitting in his house, thinking about how embarrassing it would be to die there. He imagined some ambulance driver carefully picking his way through the squalor so as not to contract tetanus and saying something like, “Pee-yew! No wonder he died! What a dump!” and so on. Ambulance drivers and others acquainted with death on a daily basis were known to make just such sarcastic quips on supposedly solemn occasions.

I smiled the whole way through this story, a long story, on my couch alone. I kind of know Jack Pendarvis (mostly on Twitter) and he’s funny as shit so I pictured him as Dudley Durden even though he’s clearly not Dudley Durden, who is constantly thinking about The New Yorker and how they must look at some guy from Alabama–’Oh wait, this guy’s from Alabama. No way we’re cutting HIM a break. What does some JERK from Alabama know about MIMES? Only us sophisticated so-called New Yorkers are sophisticated enough to understand MIMES.’ These few instances do not do the story justice, though. In any way. They seem sad taken out of context, really, like I am fucking with the world of Dudley Durden.

Check out Jack’s blog and follow him on Twitter because he will crack you up and you will thank me. Do you have McSweeney’s 20? The real pretty one sitting on your bookshelf? It’s in there.

Adam Wilson, “Soft Thunder”

9aba7bbb6969d19d55b413957ec5dce8Ben and his buddies Roland, Alex, and Sam all sleep with Kendra, but “sleep isn’t the right word.”

(from What’s Important Is Feeling)

The garage door opened to the street. We sat in lawn chairs, studied the drip of spring rain like we were in a diorama looking out. Across the cul-de-sac, lights lit empty rooms. Alex fell asleep, snored. His head hung limply, chin to chest. Sam sipped, surveyed. Roland spat. Some CD hummed: a chortling bass, the low rumble of tom drums. In the distance I heard thunder, way off to the west.

I loved this story, which is the first that appears in Wilson’s collection, What’s Important Is Feeling, out on February 25th from Harper Perennial. The story encompasses a large chunk of time and covers a lot of ground, too much to describe in a few paragraphs, though it centers around these boys and their feelings for a girl named Kendra, a skinny, punk-rock clarinet player from Hungary. (“I’m Hungarian,” she said. “Of course I play the clarinet.”)

Ben’s sister has recently returned from college. Though she’s not central to the story, her scenes have stuck with me since my initial reading weeks ago: “The lights were on when I got home, but only my sister was up. She was in her room with the door closed, the soft strum of girl folk seeping out through the crack. Trish had recently returned from freshman year of college, ten pounds overweight and in a state of psychological distress. She’d woken one morning to her boyfriend’s boning moans from the other side of the room, and an offer from her roommate to loosen up and join the party. Now she spent her days here: eating ice cream, holding forth to my mother on the failings of my gender.” As a girl who also returned home from college fatter and depressed, I can relate to poor Trish holed up in her room.

I’m not crazy about the final three paragraphs, which take us a few years into the future. I guess I’d rather be left guessing, hoping.

Here’s Adam’s website. You can buy an ebook of the story for .99 here. Kirkus says this about the collection: “Bleak First-World angst, delivered with style,” which basically describes my aesthetic exactly.

Theodore Wheeler, “Welcome Home”

getimage.ashxJim Scott returns home from Iraq to find his dog in bad shape and the termite-eaten stump where he left it.

(from Best New American Voices 2009, edited by Mary Gaitskill)

Jim had been safe, perhaps overly cautious, his whole time in Iraq. When on patrol, he ached for his wife, deeply in the pit of his stomach, so that he had only one goal: staying alive long enough to see Andrea again. To feel him pressed against her. Jim wouldn’t have made it out of the desert if it wasn’t for the promise of touching his wife. He believed that.

The writing in “Welcome Home” is nuanced and careful. The characters are well drawn. The dialogue is good. Despite these things, I feel slightly annoyed by this story. Perhaps I’ve just read too many like it.

Wheeler’s bio says nothing about being a veteran (so I assume he isn’t). A part of me thinks that non-veterans shouldn’t bother writing stories like this when there are so many veterans around to do it. What do we need the perspective of a civilian for? Why trust someone who has read and studied and watched footage when I could hear it from someone who’s actually been there? But maybe he has, and, anyhow, this should be beside the point. I guess my main criticism is that it simply feels too much like too many of the other stories I’ve read about men returning home from war. At this point, I need some real surprises.

Read my favorite soldier-returning-home-from-war story here.

 

Frederik Pohl, “Day Million”

ANCL00038It’s the future so it’s no big deal when a 187-year-old Don marries underwater man-turned-serpent-lady Dora. Marriage, of course, is a data-sharing transaction.

(from Science Fiction: The Future)

How angrily you recoil from the page! You say, who the hell wants to read about a pair of queers? Calm yourself. Here are no hot-breathing secrets of perversion for the coterie trade. In fact, if you were to see this girl you would not guess that she was in any sense a boy. Breasts, two; reproductive organs, female. Hips, callipygean; face hairless, supra-orbital lobes non-existent. You would term her female on sight, although it is true that you might wonder just what species she was a female of, being confused by the tail, the silky pelt and the gill slits behind each ear.

Now you recoil again. Cripes, man, take my word for it. This is a sweet kid, and if you, as a normal male, spent as much as an hour in a room with her you would bend heaven and Earth to get her in the sack. Dora (We will call her that; her “name” was omicron-Dibase seven-group-totter-oot S Doradus 5314, the last part of which is a colour specification corresponding to a shade of green)–Dora, I say, was feminine, charming and cute. I admit she doesn’t sound that way. She was, as you might put it, a dancer. Her art involved qualities of intellection and expertise of a very high order, requiring both tremendous natural capacities and endless, practice; it was performed in null-gravity and I can best describe it by saying that it was something like the performance of a contortionist and something like classical baflel; maybe resembling Danilova’s dying swan. It was also pretty damned sexy. In a symbolic way, to be sure; but face it, most of the things we call “sexy” are symbolic, you know, except perhaps an exhibitionist’s open clothing. On Day Million when Dora danced, the people who saw her panted, and you would too.

This “instant classic” is from 1966, but it escaped my attention till today, when I found it in this sharp-looking anthology from 1971 which I picked up for a buck from a local book shop getting ready to go under. How awesome is that cover? Mr. Pohl, I’m sorry to learn, just passed away in September. Surely this wild tale of “modern” love between a spaceman and a transgender waterwoman was fairly progressive when it was written, and it still feels that way today. The humorous narration and fanciful presentation remind me of certain old Loony Tunes cartoons, though I can’t think of any one in particular. Maybe the shorts I’m thinking of were themselves parodies of those “kitchen of the future” type stories (with Rube Goldbergian appliances)? I don’t know. This story is short, funny and all around awesome. You should read it.

You can read it here. You can watch a film adaptation here.

Karin Tidbeck, “Miss Nyberg and I” and “Rebecka”

Jagannath book coverIn “Miss Nyberg and I,” a gardener of interesting plants finds a little imp creature. In “Rebecka,” a survivor of a horrible assault wonders why God took so long to intervene and won’t let her die. (P.S. God is back around.)

(from Jagannath)

During winter he hibernated in the flower pot.

This collection is rocking my world. By which I mean I’m really digging it. The stories are short, weird, elegant, cockeyed versions of reality and set my curiosity motoring. I don’t know if there’s a real “Miss Nyberg,” or why the story’s called that, or whether the meaning of the last line was lost when the story was translated from Swedish (it seems… odd somehow). But I love this story. It’s like a classic fable turned modern and moral-free.

“People who hurt others are the ones with the best imagination,” Rebecka said.

“Rebecka” is darker and deeper, set in a time where God, after a long absence, has returned to prove his own existence and intervene in the affairs of people. But still, bad things happen and he still moves in mysterious ways not everybody’s happy about. This story’s too short to give anything away. I read it three times.

Karen Russell, “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979″

Vampires-in-the-Lemon-Grove-karen-russelNal’s older brother is dating his crush, but the kid knows where the seagulls hide their secret stash.

(from Vampires in the Lemon Grove)

The gulls landed in Athertown on July 11, 1979. Clouds of them, in numbers unseen since the ornithologists began keeping records of such things. Scientists all over the country hypothesized about erratic weather patterns and redirected migratory routes. At first sullen Nal barely noticed them. Lost in his thoughts, he dribbled his basketball up the boardwalk, right past the hundreds of gulls on Strong Beach, gulls grouped so thickly that from a distance they looked like snowbanks. Their bodies capped the dunes.

I wanted this story to go on. It wasn’t a tightly spooled story like Russell so often delivers, not that she likes to wrap everything up nice and neat. But it was looser and stranger. I would have liked to spend more time in this small, cold beach town, with these rudderless kids. None of which is to say that its lovely, joyous final moments weren’t a fine place to end it. Anyway, read this story and try to tell me there aren’t times when stealing feels like exactly what the universe wants you to do.

For some reason you can read the story here.

Karin Tidbeck, “Beatrice”

Jagannath book coverFranz falls in love with an airship named Beatrice. Anna falls in love with a steam engine named Hercules.

(from Jagannath)

Franz Hiller, a physician, fell in love with an airship. He was visiting a fair in Berlin to see the wonders of the modern age that were on display: automobiles, propeller planes, mechanical servants, difference engines, and other things that would accompany man into the future.

I forget what I read that made me want to pick up this collection by this Swedish author Id never read before, but I remember being promised weirdness and that’s what I got. I had a feeling that the humans at the center of “Beatrice” would not find contentment in their infatuations with their barely animate objects. After all, how will you know if an airship loves you back. How can you tell if a steam engine feels what you feel?

And the fact that these two aloof objects of affection are obsolete by modern standards — is that a sign their love is doomed? There’s a lot to think about and a lot left to the imagination in this very short story. should Franz have known better? Should Anna? Are they to blame how it all turns out?

“Beatrice” was turned into a piece of puppet theater, which sounds pretty awesome. You can read this story here, as part of a steampunk anthology. That makes some sense to me. 

Kevin Wilson, “The Horror We Made”

American-Short-Fiction-Cover-Fall-2013-WEB-2A slumber party turns into a horror film.

(from American Short Fiction, Fall 2013)

These girls, and they always thought of themselves collectively, like a dues-paying club, weren’t athletic or exceptionally studious or overly attractive. But they weren’t overweight and they weren’t goth and they weren’t special ed. They did drugs, but always together and never in a place where someone would take advantage of them…They existed in a no man’s land where the kinds of boys they wanted to kiss would forget them instantly and treat them like shit around their own friends, and the kinds of boys who wanted to kiss them were too terrified to ask…

This is the relaunch issue of American Short Fiction, which went on hiatus in 2012. The Fall 2013 issue should be available in bookstores soon, or better yet, subscribe. Their tote bags are also damn cute.

So onto the story. I would like to report that Kevin Wilson knows teenage girls. He knows them well. Does Kevin Wilson have a teenage girl at home? Did he have a lot of sisters, perhaps? He captures this group both individually as well as collectively.

With Lanie’s wealthy parents in Colonial Williamsburg for the weekend, she throws a slumber party with her 25-year-old ne’er-do-well brother in attendance. They decide to make a horror film with Wolfgang manning the camera (he won’t let them use it). Wolfgang becomes slightly more threatening as the night goes on–invading their personal space and filming them between shots for “behind the scenes” footage. The girls spend the next eight hours eating “radioactive nachos” and making knives and blood while snorting Lanie’s mother’s diet pills to keep themselves going. I can’t say enough good things about this story. It feels like a spend the night party I went to at fifteen, only a lot more fun. We mostly just drank our parents’ vodka and replaced it with water; sometimes a few boys would come over and do something stupid, like light themselves on fire. Wilson really makes me miss spend-the-night parties, which, as a whole, were awful and upsetting things.

 

Alethea Black, “The Only Way Out Is Through”

10292397Fetterman takes his teenage son on a camping trip.

(from I Knew You’d be Lovely)

“Jesus!” said Fetterman, swerving just in time. A deer was standing in the middle of the road. In the backseat, Derek remained unfazed. They rounded a curve and passed a deer warning sign. “Little late now,” Fetterman muttered. He’d always thought deer warning signs had a lot more artistry than other road signs; the deer were rendered in much greater detail than humans. Derek took off his headphones, and Fetterman seized the opportunity to ask him a question. “Do you know why deer graze so close to the road?”

I really like this story, which revolves around this father-and-son pair attempting to bond on a camping trip. Fetterman is in way over his head, has no idea what he’s doing, in terms of camping or how to father his recalcitrant son. I love all of the facts that are woven throughout, like the answer to the above question. Do you know what it is–why deer graze so close to the road? “Because the grass is saltiest there, especially in winter.”

Who knew? Good to know.

“The Only Way Out Is Through” originally appeared in Narrative Magazine. Read it here. I think you have to create an account, but unless something has changed, it’s free.

 

Dorothy Allison, “River of Names”

booksA woman who can’t forget her past struggles to live in the present.

(from The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories)

We were so many we were without number and, like tadpoles, if there was one less from time to time, who counted? My maternal great-grandmother had eleven daughters, seven sons; my grandmother, six sons, five daughters. Each one made at least six. Some made nine. Six times six, eleven times nine. They went on like multiplication tables.

I haven’t posted in a while, so I woke up this morning thinking I’d read a quick story and write a little something about it. Though this isn’t a particularly long story, it’s one woman’s life haunted by hundreds of others’. I had to pause every few moments to soak up the horror, e.g. “I told her: that one went insane–got her little brother with a tire iron; the three of them slit their arms, not the wrists but the bigger veins up near the elbow; she, now, she strangled the boy she was sleeping with and got sent away; that one drank lye and died laughing soundlessly.” Some of the stories are told in depth and others are recounted like the above, but it’s all pretty wretched stuff. It made me very appreciative of my own family.

I can’t find this story online, but here is some traumatized freshman’s assessment of it for class. It’s kind of wonderful. You should also listen to Dorothy Allison talking about dialogue over at Tin House.

I think I might try to read this collection straight through. Get ready.