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Good things, small packages
Three short-story stalwarts showcase their acclaimed skills with their first collections in several years, while a newcomer who’s made his name in television and movies demonstrates that his talents aren’t limited to the screen.
For readers who lack an adventuresome streak, Lydia Davis’ distinctive short fiction can be an acquired taste. Can’t and Won’t: Stories won’t dispel that reputation, but admirers of Davis’ work will find much in this, her fifth collection, to reinforce their appreciation for her singular style.
A sizable number of the stories are based on excerpts from the letters of Gustave Flaubert (Davis translated Madame Bovary in 2010), while others are little more than fragments from Davis’ dreams and those of her family and friends. Despite these and other formal experiments like the story “Ph.D.,” which consists of a single sentence, or “Local Obits,” nine pages of life fragments of the sort that appear in each day’s paper, Davis is capable of expressing deep feeling. One example is “The Seals,” where the narrator describes her struggle to come to terms with the deaths of her sister and father three weeks apart seven years earlier, as she recognizes “the quieter and simpler fact of missing them.”
“Life is too serious for me to go on writing,” says the narrator of the story “Writing.” After reading a collection that’s as varied, vibrant and unsettling as this one, one can only hope Davis isn’t speaking for herself.
A LEGEND RETURNS
Lorrie Moore hasn’t produced a short story collection since 1998’s Birds of America, which included the classic “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk.”
In Bark: Stories, she returns with eight stories that blend her often wicked humor with keen insight into our struggles to cope with contemporary life.
Those characteristics are best illustrated in “Debarking,” where Ira Milkins, employed at the State Historical Society in Minneapolis, dips his toe into the “world of middle-aged dating” six months after divorce ends his 15-year marriage. He connects with Zora, a pediatrician whose emotional stability is as tenuous as her relationship with her sullen teenage son is strange. While Ira “had always thought he was a modern man,” he discovers that he “has his limitations.” “Paper Losses” is the heartbreaking story of Kit and Rafe, who embark on a long-planned, if ill-advised, Caribbean vacation with their children, even as they’re about to end their marriage of two decades.
The stories in Bark are liberally seasoned with Moore’s lightning-quick one-liners. Ira seeks “the geometric halfway point between stalker and Rip van Winkle,” and Kit muses that it was “good to date a nudist: things moved right along.”
In “Wings,” the collection’s longest story, KC, a musician in a failing relationship with her boyfriend, befriends an elderly widower and finds herself drawn ever deeper into his sad life. Reflecting on dying, KC imagines it would be “full of rue: like flipping through the pages of a clearance catalog, seeing the drastic markdowns on stuff you’d paid full price for and not gotten that much use from, when all was said and done.”
Certain writers excel in keeping their finger on the pulse of the era in which they write. Lorrie Moore unquestionably is one of them, and this book offers further proof of her deftness in doing so.
If you are tempted to dismiss former star of “The Office” B.J. Novak’s collection One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories as a celebrity vanity project, think again. Novak, a Harvard graduate with a degree in English and Spanish literature, is the real thing. With his brand of sharp, absurdist, observational humor, it’s easy to see him taking his place in The New Yorker’s “Shouts & Murmurs” column alongside stalwarts like Woody Allen and newcomers like his fellow actor Jesse Eisenberg.
Novak’s collection comprises 64 pieces, ranging from the two lines of “Kindness Among Cakes” to 20 pages, so if you encounter one offering that isn’t appealing, you generally don’t have to wait long before he delivers one that scores. Immersed as he is in pop culture, Novak finds it a ready-made source of material, as in “Walking on Eggshells (or: When I Loved Tony Robbins),” where the narrator turns her pursuit of the self-help guru into a self-help project. Celebrities like Kate Moss, Neil Patrick Harris, Johnny Depp and Elvis Presley also have their moments onstage.
But Novak fully displays his considerable skill in stories like “J.C. Audetat, Translator of Don Quixote,” in which a poet gains fame producing a string of increasingly improbable translations of great works, or in “The Ghost of Mark Twain,” where a middle school English teacher confronts an editor at Bantam Scholastic Classics with a surprising complaint about a certain deplorable word in Huckleberry Finn.
While it may not be as lucrative as his work in film and television, if Novak can continue to produce writing this fresh, funny and emotionally astute, he’ll have established himself firmly in a successful complementary career.
TALES FROM THE SOUTH
After the edgier short fiction of Davis, Moore and Novak, the Southern-based stories of Ellen Gilchrist’s Acts of God are likely to go down for many readers as smoothly as a cool mint julep on a steamy summer afternoon.
The characters in several of these 11 stories teeter on the edge of annihilation, and natural disaster, in particular, is never far away. “Miracle in Adkins, Arkansas” follows five teens from Fayetteville, Arkansas, who become instant celebrities when one of their number rescues a baby following a tornado in a nearby small town. Hurricane Katrina forms the backdrop for the two of the stories. In “Collateral,” Carly Dixon, a widow and mother of a 13-year-old son, finds herself making helicopter rescues in New Orleans as a member of the National Guard. Dean and Dave, two gay paramedics from Los Angeles attending a convention in New Orleans as the hurricane bears down on the city, decide to ride out the storm with a colorful new friend in a Jackson Square apartment in “High Water.”
Carly Dixon’s new lover dismisses his ex-wife with the comment that “she’s from up north and she doesn’t understand the South.” If you weren’t raised below the Mason-Dixon line, you’ll finish this collection with a better understanding of the lives and values of the people who live there.