Looking back at 2009, I stumbled across several short stories which inspired me in one way or another. These short stories were not published in 2009, they are simply the stories that I read over the year that have resonated with me. They are stories which got under my skin somehow, stories I found myself reflecting on, marveling at their construction, their prose, and their revelation of themes that matter. The Theory of Light and Matter, by Andrew Porter. This was the most beautiful short story I’ve read this past year. The title story in Porter’s collection details an undergraduate’s relationship with a professor while she’s dating her future husband. Porter’s stories are written in first person flashbacks, often in non-chronological order, as if the narrator is remembering bits and pieces of their lives. This story explores themes of love lost and how everyone deals with reaching their own limits. As with the best tales, this story builds until the final page.
Starving, by Elizabeth Strout. This is just one of the few remarkable stories from Elizabeth’s Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning Olive Kitteredge. When an older man and his mistress are drawn into helping a young anorexic girl, the girl leaves a lasting impression on the man. I loved how Strout intertwined the stories of two generations into one tale, and how the slang of the younger generation causes the man to reflect on his own relationships.
Bethlehem is Full, by Boomer Pinches. A beautifully constructed story about a couple who deals with some unpleasant business before taking a vacation in Australia, only to have their relationship fall apart while in the Outback. The story is also told in prose that’s as spare as the Australian Outback it’s located in. This story takes a difficult look at a complex heart rendering situation from a male perspective, at one point the man is literally wrestling with his demons. The ending to this story took me totally by surprise. Totally heart wrenching.
A Different Road, by Elizabeth Strout. This is one of those stories that starts out with belly laughs and then turns terribly wrong. The story begins innocently enough when Olive insists that her husband stop the car so she can use the ladies room. The story veers from comic moments to sheer panic to desperation. What started out a being in the wrong place at the wrong time turns into surprising sad revelations. What a great ride.
The Interlopers, by Saki. This is the oldest story on my list. I was turned on to Saki by a Twitter friend, whom I’m most grateful for. This story revolves around two men who continue carrying on the feud of their two families over land. My favorite short stories are the ones that build to a crescendo and leave me soaring at the end; when the final paragraph acts as the catapult, sometimes the final sentence. In Saki’s story, he boils this down to the final word of the story. Just marvelous.
Real Life, by Donald Ray Pollock. This is the opening story in Pollock’s first collection, Knockemstiff. The first line of the story reads, “My father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive-in when I was seven years old.” What occurs at the drive-in that night is brutal, but what transpires afterwards, and the cumulative effect at the end of the story is simply haunting. This entire collection is remarkable “grit lit,” a reminder that terrible things happen in this world.
Outage, by John Updike. I read this on the New Yorker’s web site, maybe late last year but then immediately re-read it again when he passed away in January, 2009. Updike captures the essence of a fierce blowing rain storm beautifully, and how life in a small town comes to a halt when the power is disrupted. He captures the hopes and fears of a man and his female neighbor when they are alone without the distractions of the electronic age, and the ending is so natural.
If any short stories have gotten under your skin this past year, I'd love to know what they are.