Colin Barrett, “The Ways”

150105_r25956-876The three Munnelly kids are dealing with the new routine after their parents die of cancer.

(from The New Yorker, Jan. 5, 2015)

The landline was mewling again in the kitchen, obliging Pell Munnelly, woke now for good, to climb from the cozy rut of her bed and pad downstairs in bare feet. She skimmed her fingertips along the dulled gray-and-lilac grain of the walls, swatted each light switch she passed to feel less alone.

On the phone was the secretary from her little brother Gerry’s school. The secretary was named Lorna Dawes, a pretty blond sap Pell sometimes saw around town. Another fight, Sap said: Gerry and two lads in the basement locker rooms before first class, an argument escalating to blows, and now Gerry was being detained in Sap’s office until such time as someone could come pick him up.

The receiver was hot against Pell’s ear. There was snow in the back garden, a radiant pelt of the stuff with dark, snub-bodied birds dabbing across it. She lifted a foot from the lino, pressed dorsal and toes into the flannelled warmth of her standing calf.

In a way, stories about children raising each other after the deaths of their parents are, if not dystopian, then maybe a little bit post-apocalyptic. Or something? It’s all about people unsuited to tragedy and self-sufficiency trying to make a go of normal life.

The Munnellys have their issues, but it seems like they’re getting the job done. Sure, Gerry’s getting into fights at school, Pell’s not going to school, and Nick is working himself to the bone trying to provide, and those are all signs that something’s got to give. But, for a post-apocalyptic scenario, where everything they knew has been upended or stolen from them, they’re doing okay. (I never got into Party of Five; was that like this?) I get why the story is how it is — brevity sidesteps the schmaltz hazard — but there could also be more. A novel, maybe. These characters are lovely and I want good things for them.

Read this story here. I’m trying to work my way through all these New Yorkers.

Stephen King, “A Death”

150309_r26192-880Police arrest the local idiot for the murder of a little girl, but he insists he’s innocent.

(from The New Yorker, March 9, 2015)

Jim Trusdale had a shack on the west side of his father’s gone-to-seed ranch, and that was where he was when Sheriff Barclay and half a dozen deputized townsmen found him, sitting in the one chair by the cold stove, wearing a dirty barn coat and reading an old issue of the Black Hills Pioneer by lantern light. Looking at it, anyway.

Sheriff Barclay stood in the doorway, almost filling it up. He was holding his own lantern. “Come out of there, Jim, and do it with your hands up. I ain’t drawn my pistol and don’t want to.”

Trusdale came out. He still had the newspaper in one of his raised hands. He stood there looking at the sheriff with his flat gray eyes. The sheriff looked back. So did the others, four on horseback and two on the seat of an old buckboard with “Hines Mortuary” printed on the side in faded yellow letters.

“I notice you ain’t asked why we’re here,” Sheriff Barclay said.

“Why are you here, Sheriff?”

“Where is your hat, Jim?”

It took me awhile to get into Stephen King. As a kid I remember thinking Salem’s Lot was a terrible slog; eventually I gave up and started flipping around looking for the dirty/scary parts. As an adult, I was too snobby. King’s prose left little to the imagination, I thought, overexplained every pointless detail. But still I continued on, mostly in audiobook form, because he’s fun as hell. Then I listened to his inspiring and I came to understand him as a writing always improving, always striving. It’s an amazing book.

And I started to notice something different about King’s writing, especially his newer stuff, and especially his shorter stuff. Am I crazy or is he getting better? “A Death” is a tightly written and surprising mystery story. It’s engrossing, and authentic in its frontier-town setting (at least, as far as I know). I’m not grading this on a curve; it’s genuinely great. And still fun as hell. Read it here.

Crane shot

Robert Coover, “Crabapple Tree”

150112_r25994-898The long, twisted history of Dickie-boy and his family, most of whom ended up buried beneath the crabapple tree.

(from The New Yorker, Jan. 12, 2005)

This happened here in our town. A friend of mine—we were on the cheerleading team together—married a local farmer, and right away they wanted to have a baby, though the doctor said she shouldn’t. She was a bleeder, he said, and if she started he might not be able to stop it. But she didn’t listen. She went ahead and got pregnant, then bled to death during childbirth and was buried out by the farmhouse, under a crabapple tree. It was very sad. I cried for a week. But the baby survived, a pretty little boy; his dad called him Dickie-boy, but I don’t know if that was his real name.

His dad was a hard worker and a nice guy—I went on a movie date with him once when we were young—but he sometimes drank too much and he was hopeless at ordinary household chores and raising babies. So pretty soon he found another wife, either through a dating service or else he picked her up in one of his bars somewhere, because none of us girls knew her. She was a tough, sexy lady, a hooker, maybe. She made no effort to be one of us or to make us like her. I guess she considered us beneath her. We called her the Vamp. She got around, and it was said that she’d taken half the men in town to bed, my own ex included. They all denied it, like cheating husbands do, but, when the subject came up, little shit-eating grins would appear on their faces and their eyes would glaze over as if they were remembering the wild time they’d had.

This is one stylish, wild, spooky story. There’s the hazy, gossipy rural gothic angle — where every character seems to be uniquely screwed up — and then there are these wtf moments I had to re-read a couple times. Dickie-boy’s demise is so insane I actually laughed out loud. I loved this creepazoid story and I bet you will too. Read it here.

P.S. This has nothing to do with the above. One of my favorite comedy writers, Harris Wittels, died recently. Here’s a funny moment from Parks & Rec to remember him by.

Yannick Murphy, “In a Bear’s Eye”

Better_of_McSweeney's_Vol_2A mother panics as a bear shakes apples from a tree near her son. 

(from The Better of McSweeney’s Vol 2)

“Your boy is a smart boy,” the teacher said. “The death of his father must have come as a shock. But still,” the teacher said, “there is school.”

She looked into the refrigerator to offer the teacher something. There wasn’t much. She hadn’t been to the store in days. She opened the bottom bin and found two lemons. She took them out and put them on the table where they rolled for a moment. The mother got her wooden chopping board and placed the lemons on it and cut each lemon in four. She pushed the chopping board toward the teacher. “Please, have some.”

I like this story a lot. It’s written in a simple way that belies the seriousness of the subject matter. It reminds me of Roddy Doyle’s “New Boy,” which was also published in McSweeney’s, and which I loved.

The ending surprised me in a good way.

I think I would be a better, more successful writer if my name was Yannick Murphy.


Rebecca Schiff, “Boxing Experiment A38″

CoverA woman teaches her widowed mother to use the computer. 

(from The American Reader, Vol 2, No 2)

I did a search for “water filters” because I wanted to protect her from the carcinogens of Central New Jersey. When I typed the “w,” “women boxing” appeared as a previous search. He had sought them out. The boxers had enormous breasts. My mother’s breasts were tiny, a few inches of raised skin, nipples the size of pennies. Did he dream of swinging breasts, of humiliation, knock-outs, defeat?

I like Rebecca Schiff’s stories, which I’ve read in various magazines over the years, so I was excited to find this one. The voice is readable, honest, and I always identify with her narrators. As much as I like “Boxing Experiment A38,” I don’t feel like I know as much about the narrator as I want. What does she do when she’s not visiting her widowed mother, helping with dishes and looking at pictures of her deceased father? Who is she then? I want all the details. I wanted it to be messier. But I still love her and would happily read every word she writes. I hope she collects her stories in an actual book very soon. Someone publish them, please?

I’ve never read an issue of The American Reader before. I’m used to magazines like Fence and Tin House, with their shiny covers and brightly colored pictures, but Everett at Square Books told me to buy it. It has the usual poetry and fiction, as well as essays and book reviews, which I like very much, and I’ll be buying it again very soon or subscribing. I should subscribe. It’ll be kind of cool to look like I’m reading a business journal in public.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, ”Inventions”

IRASST Isaac Bashevis Singer, InventionsA Communist leader is visited by a ghost, shaking his faith in the beliefs of the Party.

(from The New Yorker, Jan. 26, 2015)

Morris Krakower is clever at conspiracy, but intrigue isn’t necessary here. The press is admitted to the sessions; the police have infiltrated their spies, but Morris needn’t fear arrest. Even if he were arrested, it would be no great tragedy. In prison, he could devote his time to reading. He would smuggle out manuscripts to arouse the masses. A few weeks of prison can only enhance the prestige of a Party worker.

The opening bit tells us this is a story within a story, something an author wrote one sleepless night in the country. This tells us the ghost story is aware of at least some layers of its fictionality; but it also adds to the dim dreaminess of the main action. Are we awake or dreaming when Krakower feels that tug on his blanket? We’re reading a story about a story and yet somehow the paranormal parts are extra spooky. Moreover, this story has a few things to say about political and religious polarization. Hardliner Krakower must force himself to dismiss his vision as a dream or abandon everything he believes in.

Singer is no longer alive; ”Inventions” was written in 1965 and found last year among his papers. It was previously only published in Yiddish. You can read it here.

J. Robert Lennon, “Breadman”

150119_r26013_rd-880A husband waits in line to buy focaccia from his wife’s favorite baking guru, the eccentric and popular Breadman.

(from The New Yorker, Jan. 19, 2015)

None of them looked at their phones. I did, because I was by myself, and because I lived most of my life at a distance from the things and people I loved. It was also a quality of mine that I invariably became the terminus of any queue I joined.

This story cracked me the hell up. So many snide little lines. I envision the narrator as a bewildered Louis C.K.-George Costanza hybrid, a troubled and snarky everyman obligated to play along with the Breadman’s ridiculous theater just to pick up some bread for his sick wife. The Breadman, meanwhile, isn’t necessarily a villain — just smug as all hell. He’s an artisanal baking genius and charismatic guru (he’s also maybe 5 percent Soup Nazi); you’d be smug too.

You can read this story, or have it read to you, here, and I say go for it. There’s also a decent interview with the author. If I’m going to read 100 short stories this year, as I tell myself I’m aiming to, I’ll need to start chipping away at the stack of New Yorkers on the coffee table. So much overdue homework.

Robert Aickman, “The Waiting Room”

51BUGUZhYOL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A weary traveler waits for his next train in a bitterly cold room and sees people who are not there.

(from The Uncanny Reader)

Against such interventions of fate as this, reflected Edward Pendlebury, there was truly nothing that the wisest and most farsighted could do; and the small derangement of his plans epitomised the larger derangement which was life.

This is the first time I’ve read anything by Robert Aickman, though I’ve been searching for his stuff for awhile (musicians I respect have sung his praises, or made references, at any rate). I’ve seen a couple of his reissued collections on Amazon, but have yet to run across a copy in a used shop; an original cover appeals to me.

Now that I’ve read “The Waiting Room,” I’m more intrigued than blown away. Where I wanted a twist, there was something more rote, and while some parts were inventive or charming, others were less so. I counted three instances of things “waxing” in this story, though there may have been more, and it seemed conspicuous. And some descriptions sprawled as if we too were Pendlebury, helpless but to wait around and bear witness.

Still, I like the way I think this man thinks. I read this one sentence  several times to unpack its meanings, which became less apparent once I finished: “Those seated upon the table were unmistakably of to-day. Though mostly young, they appeared to be old friends, habituated to trusting one another with the truth.” It’s an interesting thing to observe about apparitions, especially ones who exist but do not act in any meaningful way. I read that sentence again and feel like Morel.

Lorrie Moore, “Places to Look for Your Mind”


A young Englishman named John Spee comes to stay with Millie and Holt Keegan in New Jersey. 

(from Like Life)

How disappointing America must seem. To wander the streets of a city that was not yours, a city with its back turned, to be a boy from far away and step ashore here, one’s imagination suddenly so concrete and mistaken, how could that not break your heart?

My first encounter with Lorrie Moore was her collection Birds of America, and I found the stories dry, dull. Even the cover bored me. Looking back on it, I didn’t give it much of a chance, or I wasn’t ready for her yet. In the last few years, however, I’ve read Like Life and Self-Help and have come to realize why she’s so loved, why major presses continue to publish her story collections; she has more than earned her following and successes.

Moore does amazing stuff with POV, switching seamlessly between characters, and isn’t afraid to take risks with narrative (Throughout this story, for example, we get pieces of John Spee’s journal entry, “Crazy People I Have Met in America.”) She writes about such disparate characters–a woman obsessed with garbage, a jobless Englishman, an instructor of Religion at a community college–with ease and compassion.

John Spee’s visit to America doesn’t go well or last long, but you probably already knew that. I couldn’t find this one online, but you can pick up her collected stories or, better yet, buy her most recent collection, Bark.

Amelia Gray, “Thoughts While Strolling”

collegeport_clappWeird little observations about birds, roads, ribbons and people in a small Texas town.

(from Museum of the Weird)

A language is born: the manner in which the black silk ribbon is tied determines the personality of the girl who ties it. A half-hitch means she is searching for a kind gentleman to walk her to the market. A sheep-shank means she is a scurrilous woman who wishes to entrap a gentleman with kind words. A figure-of-eight means the time has come for sober discussions regarding the future. The children steal a black silk ribbon and tie it round a frog.

This collection of odd snippets is meant to be read as bits from a column in a small Texas newspaper. I doubt these are the real thoughts and columns of the “Harry Austin Clapp” alluded to in the italicized preface to this story (they read like Gray), but it’s worth noting that he was indeed a real person and columnist. The preface — faithfully lifted from this 1937 obit — features a phrase I like for its ability to summarize a hardship while deflecting morbid curiosity: “following an illness of several months.” Google says it’s not an uncommon phrase in certain types of obituaries. Read “Thoughts While Strolling” here.