Monthly Archives: July 2005

Tobias Wolff, "Next Door"

Listening to the violent, fighting neighbors.

(from In The Garden of the North American Martyrs)

A strange, messed situation gives way to watching TV. This funny-scary story conjures up more questions than it answers. Like why does the husband-wife duo in the foreground sleep in separate beds, like a TV couple of old? The “geography” innuendo is sweet.

Many thanks to the thoughtful Beth Gabriela Warshaw for making a huge donation to I Read A Short Story Today. She dropped off a big box containing the following treasures:
Tobias Wolff, In The Garden of the North American Martyrs
Granta #81, Best of Young British Novelists
Granta #87, Jubilee
Granta #88, Mothers
Granta #89, The Factory
Ethan Canin, Emperor of the Air
A.S. Byatt, Little Black Book of Stories
A.L. Kennedy, Indelible Acts
Alan Bennett, The Laying on of Hands
R.K. Narayan, Under The Banyan Tree
Muriel Spark, All the Stories
Richard Ford, A Multitude of Sins
Modern Short Stories: The Uses of Imagination
Modern American Prose: Fifteen Writers +15
Alice Munro, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
The Bedford Introduction to Literature
William Trevor, The Collected Stories

Eric Hanson, "Midnight"

Stalin was a crazy, cold-blooded mofo.

(from McSweeney’s # 15)

A funny little vignette about a ruthless dickhead. The story has no moral and no point. Because neither did Fat Joe.

Reading stories over the next week might be tough because work is nutso. But I’ll try.
I introduced Chuck Klosterman before his book reading at the Free Library yesterday. He’s a nice guy.

Anquette, “Janet Reno”

Padgett Powell, "Manifesto"

A conversation about lots of things, but also nothing.

(from McSweeney’s #15)

If I were to guess, I’d say this was a conversation between to riffing, ironic, overeducated business men, but it’s hard to say for sure who the two people are trading irreverent quips and supportive witticisms. Though there are no quotation marks, you can tell the entire story is a dialogue between two possibly inebriated people, but there are no he saids or clues as to who is saying what where and when.
Here’s the kind of creek-of-consciousness nuttiness the conversation wades into:
Constant Rectitude and Studio Becalmed have run away to join the circus, but they join the army instead in error and will die as patriots rather than as syphillitic roustabouts.
Failure is to success as water is to land.
This is the great secular truth.
It’s funny and foggy. An alternate universe where nobody ever heard of Godot.

Daphne Kalotay, "A Brand New You"

Annie shacks up with her ex.

(from Calamity and Other Stories)

This story of two divorced people meeting up as more mature improvements on their former selves is sometimes very casual about the meaning of its details and asides. Her baggage-free health plan, his new dignified wrinkles. Other times, it’s a bit over, like when the two recite poetry to each other (and us). Overall, a fun and sharp story. Maybe even hopeful.
I’ve read one other story by Kalotay, during the early days of I Read A Short Story Today, on December 30. Here‘s that write-up.

Adventures in Stereo, “You Hurt Me More Than You Know”

Tessa Hadley, "The Card Trick"

Gina spends an awkward summer at the beach house.

(from The O. Henry Prise Stories 2005)

The moments of young sexual tension and hope were okay, and the titular card trick was a neat little moment (and a hammer-to-the-head metaphor), but mostly I enjoyed Gina’s visits to the home of a supposedly famous and important novelist both as a young woman and an older woman. It’s not done with a flourish, more like an unfolding. Sneaky.

Maximilian Schlaks, "Tell Them, Please Tell Them"

Tough times in the tough Russian prison/military system, which is tough.

(from The Atlantic Monthly‘s Fiction Issue)

What’s that you say? You don’t have a copy of The Atlantic Monthly‘s Fiction Issue (shame on you) but you’d still like to get the same high, the same rush of adrenaline one gets from reading “Tell Them, Please Tell Them” by Maximilian Schlaks? Don’t fret, just follow these simple steps:
1. Remove your socks and shoes.
2. Get behind a UPS truck.
3. Clutch the bumper tight with both hands, and bend the knees.
4. When the truck begins moving, attempt to water ski with your bare feet on the unforgiving asphalt.
It’s something like that.
Not because it’s poorly written, or tedious in a way that suggests a lack of talent or effort on the author’s part. Quite the opposite: So tireless is the hideous detail, so uncompromisingly grueling is the life of the characters Schlaks has created only to torture into submission or insanity, that you read on only because it’s well written. There’s really no other reason. (Not even “I have this blog…” is a good excuse.)
See it’s about these two people drafted into the Russian army in a cold hellscape where torture, insanity and cruelty are frequent occurences slipped into a daily planner already booked with rotten food and lots of lack of sleep. And once that boulder starts rolling, Schlaks gets into a pattern of out-bleaking himself, piling horribleness onto terribleness until the end comes like sweet, merciful disembowlment. Yeah, wooo!

Ok, that’s the last bit of fiction in the The Atlantic Monthly‘s first ever Fiction Issue. There were eight stories total, by Joyce Carol Oates, Nathan Englander, Shira Nayman, Charles Baxter, George Singleton, Mark Jacobs, Adam Haslett and Maximilian Schlaks.
So. Let’s review:
Stories set at least partially in New York City: 3
Stories which allude to New York City as a place of escape and opportunity: 2
Stories accompanied by pictures of turtles: 1
Stories with Jewish persecution plots (or subplots): 3
Stories with sci-fi elements: 1
Stories with references to street hockey: 1
Stories featuring enormous robots: 0
Stories told in the first person: 5
Stories with alternating narrators: 1
Stories whose endings are foretold by their subheads: 1
Stories where comedy was a priority: 0
Stories about writers: 0 (Is that right?)

Not bad, you guys!

Adam Haslett, "City Visit"

Brendan meets up with a male prostitute while on a trip to New York City with him mom.

(from The Atlantic Monthly‘s Fiction Issue)

Well. This isn’t a mesmerizing story, and it’s tempting to criticize it for all the interesting paths it failed to take. But that’s not really fair. I will say this: The matter-of-fact title is a tip-off.
But it’s not like the story was bland, just short and while you feel bad for the main character, you don’t feel like you’re in the real world. So you’re not much worried about him, or his mom.

Meanwhile, yes, I’m still reading a book: A.H.W.O.S.G. On page 265. A recent record for me and fiction.

Mark Jacobs, "Weightlifting For Catholics"

An aging businessman on an ambiguous search for God seeks out directions from a retired priest.

(from The Atlantic Monthly‘s Fiction Issue)

Well, since Harry doesn’t know what he wants or how to get it, it makes sense that this story has a wandering quality, speckled with possibly meaningless moments and irrelevant epiphanies. But it’s funny; some of the language was too precise, overly explanatory. Spelled everything out too well, too much. Worse: You just see the ending coming, not that that’s a bad thing, but it does spoil the mystery.

Amy Correia, “The Devil and I”

George Singleton, "Director’s Cut"

Mom never got over what Dad did. Now she’s got a camera and a degree in filmmaking.

(from The Atlantic Monthly‘s Fiction Issue)

Sometimes you know a story is going for the funny, achieving the funny, but you just don’t laugh. Read this one aloud to me and I will surely laugh at the funny parts. But alone and sitting in silence, not even music on, I don’t actually laugh. I merely acknowledge the funny, with an inner nod. Nicely done, I think. Well played.
The story does many things well. The most striking success is its characters. The playful, honest-but-sneaky Raylou, the dry-witted recovering alcoholic narrator, the foul-mouthed aspiring director mom. The last one, especially, is a character that strolls the balance beam between pained reality and vengeful cartoon with ease.

Charles Baxter, "Poor Devil"

Cleaning up the old house for the new couple in the days before the divorce.

(from The Atlantic Monthly‘s Fiction Issue)

Nobody writes the inner detail-riffic monologues of people in complicatedly troubled relationships the way Charles Baxter does. Is he the best at it? I don’t know. Yeah, this is a competition, but I shall not judge. Ribbons for everyone.
And. I dug this story. I mean not much happens in the here and now, but some of the relationships’ apparently numerous pratfalls are revealed in gradual waves, like unwrapping foil from a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And you already know about the sandwich.

I have been reading a book, on the side, in fits and bits. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Get neither excited nor uppity. I’m on page 53. I’ve gotten this far in books before. I like it so far. I’ve like books at this stage before, too. I hereby swedge (a swear/pledge, of course) that my reading of a book will never interfere with my mission here at I Read A Short Story Today. People. Don’t look at me like that.