Amy Bloom's Love is Not a Pie: A Review

One Story Magazine recently listed their top ten favorite short stories, along with an additional twenty-six stories to flush out the “long list.” Amy Bloom's Love is Not a Pie made the long list. Wow! Amy Bloom’s Love is Not a Pie has been the best surprise story of my summer reading project. I had not read Amy Bloom until I read Silver Water earlier for this project. That was an excellent read but I thought this story was even better. It starts:

In the middle of the eulogy at my mother’s boring and heart-breaking funeral, I began to think about calling off the wedding.

What a packed sentence! The narrator is Ellen and as she sits at the service she has the feeling her mother would not want her to marry them man she is engaged to. After the funeral, Ellen, her sister Lizzie and their father return to the house to entertain friends. When Mr. DeCuervo enters the room, their father goes over and hugs this man “in a passionate, musicless waltz.”

My sister and I sat down on the couch, pressed against each other, watching our father cry all over his friend, our mother’s lover.

The bulk of the story is then a remembrance of vacations on a lake when Ellen was a kid. Bloom vividly describes the joys and thrills of spending summers running around in the woods and swimming. Mr. DeCuervo and his daughter would often come stay for part of the vacation at the cabin. Many times, Mrs. DeCuervo was away tending to some family business. Ellen recalls once waking up and going downstairs to find her mother and Mr. DeCuervo in an embrace. Another time, she woke up with stomach cramps and went to wake her parents.

I pushed open the creaky door and saw my mother spooned up against my father’s back, as she always was, and Mr. DeCuervo spooned up against her, his arm over the covers, his other hand resting on the top her her head.

After the mourners have left the house, the father and Mr DeCuervo sit in the living room and drink while Ellen and her sister Lizzie sit in the kitchen. Lizzie reveals that while their mother was sick, Mr. DeCuervo called every day. Lizzie explains how she was confused about their relationship and asked her mother directly about it. Her mother said, “Honey, nobody loves me more than Bolivar.”

Lizzie goes on to explain that the next day, her mother told her a story about how Mr. DeCuervo had moved and replanted some apple trees that were in bloom when they first met. The first time Mr. DeCuervo met their father, they drank together and watched soccer. The mother then said:

And when the two of them are in the room together and you two girls are with us, I know that I am living in a state of grace.

In what is truly a remarkable passage, the mother explains to Lizzie how she loves both the men differently. “Love is not a pie, honey.” After Lizzie explains the conversation, Ellen tells her sister about the sightings she had when she was a kid.

Both men come into the kitchen and compliment the daughters on how beautiful they are, how they each resemble their mother in different ways.

Alone in the kitchen, Ellen thinks about how she can describe this situation to her fiance. She wonders how he would react to this story of her mother and her lover.

I knew I couldn’t tell him the rest and that I couldn’t marry a man I couldn’t tell this story too.

Love is Not a Pie is an excellent story that inverts the traditional beliefs of love and marriage in a daring and profound way. It was truly a pleasure to read and reflect upon.

Mavis Gallant Short Story: A Review

One Story Magazine recently listed their top ten favorite short stories, along with an additional twenty-six stories to flush out the “long list.” Mavis Gallant's When We Were Nearly Young made the long list. Having read 28 of the stories out of the 36, I’m unclear on how this story made this list. As soon as I started reading When We Were Nearly Young, I remembered having listened to it on the New Yorker Fiction podcast a year ago. I recalled thinking how I had not cared for the story then, but I pulled out my ipod and listened while reading the short story from The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant. Unfortunately, the story did not grow on me.

What I really enjoyed though was the discussion between writer Antonya Nelson and New Yorker Fiction Editor Deborah Treisman. They discussed how Gallant was influenced by Checkhov and Hemingway, and about the state of the short story today, and how some students find them “depressing and inconclusive.”

Gallant’s story, When We Were Young, doesn’t have much of a plot. It’s a first person account of a young woman trying to discover herself while living in Spain during the Franco era. She is waiting for money to arrive from the United States. She has three Spanish friends, two men and one women, who also seem to be in a state of waiting. The story starts:

In Madrid, nine years ago, we lived on the thought of money.

They live simple lives, eating in the cheapest of restaurants and loafing around, trying to enjoy what they can with their meager funds. It’s as if their lives are in a state of suspension. In the end, the narrator receives her long awaited check and this changes her relationship with her friends, for they are waiting in a different sense. They have no chance of real money or opportunity coming to them.

They understood that my new fortune had cast me out.

After the reading of the story on the podcast, Treisman tells an interesting account about how Gallant did live in Spain waiting for her agent to sell a story and send her money. Unfortunately, her agent had been cheating her; he had been selling her stories but he had not been sending the money. Nelson also tells how Gallant had once sent in a story to the New Yorker and William Maxwell had turned it down, but thirty years later he admitted he was wrong and said he believed it was a good story.

Have you read this Mavis Gallant story? If so, did you like it and why? For those who haven’t read it but want to check it out, I recommend listening to the audio reading here on the New Yorker website.

White Angel: A Review

One Story Magazine recently listed their top ten favorite short stories, along with an additional twenty-six stories to flush out the “long list.” Michael Cunningham's White Angel made the short list. Michael Cunningham’s White Angel is a story I should love. It has everything I like in a short story: sex, drugs, love, and rock ‘n roll. I first read White Angel a few years ago, and revisited it this weekend. It’s an interesting tale well told, yet for some reason, I’ve not learned to love the story. It starts out:

We lived then in Cleveland, in the middle of everything. It was the sixties – our radios sang out love all day long.

Frisco goes on to tell the story about his relationship with his older brother Carlton. Carlton taught Frisco about sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll when they were teens. Carlton is sixteen, and Frisco is only nine. They drank Southern Comfort and smoked joints in the cemetery behind their house.

A single stone angel, small-breasted and determined, rose amid the more conservative markers close to our house.

Cunningham doesn’t foreshadow, but actually tells us a key moment early on:

Here is Carlton several months before his death, in an hour or so alive with snow that earth and sky are identically white.

Frisco and Cartlon are tripping. They’ve dropped acid and Carlton is guiding Frisco through the process as they hang out in the cemetery.

“Stay loose, Frisco,” he says. “There’s not a thing in this pretty little world to be afraid of. I’m here.”

A few days later, Carlton and his girlfriend are having sex in the graveyard. Frisco stumbles upon the scene and watches, until Carlton becomes aware of his presence.

We lock eyes and spend a moment in mutual decision. The girl keeps on clutching at Carlton’s skinny back. He decides to smile at me. He decides to wink.

One night as their parents are hosting a party, Carlton’s friends show up and start partying with the adults. There is a moment where Frisco’s parents tell him he must go up to bed because it’s getting late.

Around midnight, dim-witted Frank announces he has seen a flying saucer hovering over the back yard.

Frisco sneaks down as everyone empties into the backyard. After looking toward the sky, people return and start dancing but Carlton has apparently jumped the fence into the cemetery for some quiet time.

As Frisco watches from inside the living room, Carlton comes sprinting through the backyard toward the shut sliding glass door.

Carlton’s girlfriend looks lazily out, touching base with her own reflection. I look, too. Carlton is running toward our house. I hesitate. Then I figure he can bump his nose. It will be a good joke on him. I let him keep coming. His girlfriend sees him through her own reflection, starts to scream a warning just as Carlton hits the glass.

This is Carlton’s demise. He has broken through.

Carlton reaches up to take a shard of glass that is stuck in his neck, and that is when the blood starts.

He dies in the arms of his girlfriend before an ambulance arrives. They bury him in the cemetery. The story ends with Frisco explaining how Carlton’s girlfriend cried so hard at the funeral, and how she and her family have moved to Denver.

At least she had protected herself by trying to warn him.

In contrast to the girlfriend, Frisco appears to have been left numb.

This story is often anthologized and used in creative writing classrooms, so it’s a bit intimidating to acknowledge I don’t love it. It’s not the subject matter I don’t like, but I think it’s more the structure. Learning early that Carlton is going to die took the tension out of the story when I first read it. Cunningham appears to have written this story in a way to take the tension out, possibly to mirror the numbness of Frisco as he reflects on his younger years. There is some question as to how reliable a narrator Frisco could be, and this is fine. After all, he is a nine-year-old kid on acid. More than that though, I just didn’t empathize with the narrator or Carlton and wasn’t drawn into the story.

I've now read 28 of the 36 short stories has listed as their "favorite stories," and am looking forward to tackling the final eight and recapping my summer project.

A Good Man is Hard to Find: A Review

Earlier this year, One Story Magazine listed their top ten favorite short stories, along with an additional twenty-six stories to flush out the “long list.” Flannery O’Connor's A Good Man is Hard to Find made the short list. Deservedly so. In this story, a grandmother navigates her son and his family to their death at the hands of “The Misfit.” She is a self absorbed character, her memory possibly fading with age. The story starts off with her railing against her son Bailey, saying they shouldn’t make this trip to Florida because of a killer on the loose. Her young grandkids mock her, because they know she won’t pass up taking the trip with them.

The next morning, she’s the first one in the car, seated in the center of the back seat with the kids on either side of her. She has snuck her cat into the car. As they drive, the grandmother spouts off her arcane beliefs. The irony in this paragraph is remarkable:

“In my time,” said the grandmother, folding her thin veined fingers, “children were more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else. People did right then. Oh look at the cute little pickaninny!” she said and pointed to a Negro child standing in the door of a shack. “Wouldn’t that make a picture now?”

When they stop for barbecue sandwiches, the proprietor Red Sammy and the grandmother converse.

“A good man is hard to find,” Red Sammy said. “Everything is getting terrible. I remember the day you could go off and leave your screen door unlatched. Not no more.”

As they continue on their trip, the grandmother has a recollection of a grand house she believes she once visited and describes it in almost heavenly terms.

She said the house had six white column across the front and that there was an avenue of oaks leading up to it and two little wooden trellis arbors on either side…

She gets the children riled up about seeing the house because it allegedly has a secret compartment. Bailey grows irritated but agrees to turn off down a side road to see this house. As they drive down the desolate road, the grandmother recalls she has made a mistake and the house she was thinking of is actually in Tennessee. This realization shocks her. She lifts up her feet and the cat jumps up on Bailey’s shoulder as he drives. The car flips over in a ditch and the family is injured.

As they sort things out, a car meanders along the road and three men climb out and look down on the family. One of the men is described as the leader.

His hair was just beginning to gray and he wore silver-rimmed spectacles that gave him a scholarly look.

The grandmother has an eerie sense she has seen the leader of the three men before.

She scrambled to her feet and stood staring. “You’re the Misfit!” she said. “I recognized you at once.”

The grandmother starts immediately trying to placate the Misfit.

“I know you’re a good man. You don’t look a bit like you have common blood. I know you must come from nice people!”

The Misfit instructs his men to escort Bailey and the grandson into the woods away from the family. The grandmother keeps trying to insist to The Misfit he is a good man and he should pray. After they disappear into the woods, two gunshots are heard.

The grandmother continues pleading with the Misfit, “You are a good man.”

As they escort the daughter in law and girl back into the woods, the grandmother pleads more.

At one point, the Misfit says to the grandmother, “Does it seem right to you lady, that one is punished a heap and another ain’t punished at all?”

More gunshots are heard from the woods.

…The grandmother raised her head like a parched old turkey hen crying for water and called, “Bailey Boy, Bailey Boy!” as if her heart would break.

The Misfit says,

“Jesus was the only one to raise the dead, and he shouldn’t have done it. If He did what He did, there is nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can - by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.”

The grandmother says in a delirious way, “You’re one of my own children!” She reaches out and touches the Misfit. He jumps back and shoots her dead.

“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

O'Connor’s Catholic faith was at the core of her stories. She was devout in her belief that the Eucharist was actually the body and blood of Christ. She famously said one time, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” Her faith played an important part in her writing, and particularly so in this story. The grandmother claims she lives an upstanding Christian life, but in truth she is self absorbed, believing that people come from “good blood” and that’s what can save them. Much has been written about the ending when she reaches out to the Misfit and says, “You’re one of my own children.” The statement leads one to believe O’Connor is asking - what really breeds evil in this world. The Misfit’s final words echo the idea of living one’s live with faith throughout, and not just at the end of one’s life. Although I first read this thirty years ago, it remains a startling story with a deep message about faith.

Maile Meloy's Travis, B: My Review

One Story Magazine recently listed their top ten favorite short stories, along with an additional twenty-six stories to flush out the “long list.” Maile Meloy’s ”Travis, B.” made the long list. This was a beautiful tale of a disfigured cowboy who tries to reach out in the vast western space and has his heart broken. It starts:

Chet Moran grew up in Logan, Montana, at a time when kids weren’t supposed to get polio anymore.

But Chet did get polio. His mother thought he would die young. Now, as the story unfolds, he is twenty-two years old and works on a farm feeding the cows. He’s led a tough life after surviving polio. Through the years, he’s broken several bones riding horses and had a rod put in his leg.

From then on, he walked as though he were turning to himself to ask a question.

He spends harsh winters in insulated rooms off the barn.

He got afraid of himself that winter; he sensed something dangerous that would break free if he kept much alone.

One night, Chet is bored and drives through town looking for something to do on a cold winter night. He sees people walking into a school and he joins them, sitting in the back of the room. A lawyer named Beth Travis is starting a class for teachers. The class will take place on Tuesday and Thursday nights.

After the class, Chet strikes up a conversation with Beth. She reveals that she is in a tough predicament. She lives eight hours away, and after agreeing to teach this class because she had no job, she found a job at home. She laments having to drive through the night to show up for work the next morning. It’s an impossible routine, and she is very unhappy about her circumstance. Chet offers to show her the local cafe so she can eat before her long drive.

Chet returns to the class on Thursday, and thinks about Beth through the weekend. On the following Tuesday, he rides a horse into town to the meeting. After class, he convinces her to ride to the cafe on the back of the horse. It’s a beautiful sight, and it seems to lift her spirits. Chet kisses her, but he is too shy and uneducated to start a real relationship.

When Chet shows up for the Thursday class, Beth is absent. The class is informed she will not be returning. Chet immediately drives through the night to her hometown, and looks her up in the phone book. He finds her office and catches her as she is heading into work.

“I just knew that if I didn’t start driving, I wasn’t going to see you again, and I didn’t want that. That’s all.”

He stood there waiting, thinking she might say something, meet him halfway. He wanted to hear her voice again. He wanted to touch her, any part of her, just her arms maybe, just her waist. She stood out of reach, waiting for him to go.


Chet returns to his home and for awhile hopes he’s planted a seed and she will come to him, but she doesn’t. The story ends:

He fished her phone number out of his pocket and studied it in the moonlight, until he knew it by heart, and wouldn’t forget it. Then he did what he knew he should do, and rolled it into a ball, and threw it away.

This story is as spare as the landscape in which it’s set. It’s an excellent metaphor for the loneliness Chet experiences. His solitary life, without an opportunity to “practice” with girls is painfully sad. This is a nicely written realist story, which intrigues me and makes me want to try a few more of Meloy’s stories.

Franz Kafka's Hunger: A Review

One Story Magazine recently listed their top ten favorite short stories, along with an additional twenty-six stories to flush out the “long list.” Franz Kafka's A Hunger Artist made the long list. This allegory stunned me the first time I read it a few years ago, and it’s still as haunting on the second read. I expect nothing less from Kafka. After all, this is the man who wrote about a man turning into a cockroach.

Kafka’s A Hunger Artist starts:

Over the last few decades, the interest in hunger-artists has suffered a marked decline.

The hunger-artist is a man who fasts while sitting in a cage in front of the townspeople. This is the man’s art form. He willingly starves himself, though his manager makes him break his fast after forty days. Certain “warders” stay at the cage all night to insure he doesn’t sneak food.

This was purely a formality, introduced to ease the minds of the public, because the cognoscenti were well aware that during a period of starvation, no hunger-artist would have eaten the least thing under any circumstances not even under duress; the honour code of his art forbade it.

Still the hunger artist is not satisfied with his art. Despite the honor given during his fasts, the artist is “made still gloomier by virtue of that fact that no one took it seriously.

He would like to fast for more than forty days, but his manager has deemed the audience loses interest at around this time, so it’s best to pull the hunger artist out of the cage and feed him to regain his strength. He performs his forty days of fasting repeatedly over many years, but eventually the audience loses interest in watching the hunger-artist.

Even if he starved to the very best of his ability, and so he did, nothing could rescue him any more, people walked past him.

In the end, the artist is forgotten in his cage for some time. Someone eventually wonders why the empty cage is sitting there. They find the hunger artist near death. In his final words, the hunger-artist states that his starving should not be admired by others and admits he believes he had no choice but to starve.

When the overseer asks, “And why can’t you do anything else?” The hunger-artist replies:

Because I couldn’t find any food I liked. If I had found any, believe me, I would have eaten to my heart’s content, just like you or anyone else.

After the hunger-artist dies, the cage is used to house a panther and spectators crowd around the cage.

My take on this allegory is that Kafka is equating the suffering in starving to the suffering a writer undertakes in crafting a story. The hunger artist wants his work to be pure but is handcuffed by the demands of his manager and the audience. It’s a strange and disturbing metaphor. Kafka “went deep” in his writing, unearthing classic existential truths, trying to find something pure through his work. It’s not hard to imagine Kafka would feel his own stories were not taken as seriously as he would have wished.

A writer suffers for their art, but in the end the written word becomes entertainment for the reader. This reminded me of an interview Raymond Carver gave to the Paris Review. Carver said:

“After all, art is a form of entertainment, yes? For both the maker and the consumer. I mean in a way it’s like shooting billiards or playing cards, or bowling - it’s just a different, and I would say higher, form of amusement. I’m not saying there isn’t spiritual nourishment involved, too. There is, of course. Listening to a Beethoven concerto or spending time in front of a van Gogh painting or reading a poem by Blake can be a profound experience on a scale that playing bridge or bowling a 220 game can never be. Art is all the things art is supposed to be. But art is also a superior amusement. Am I wrong in thinking this?”

Note: In an earlier post, I believe I commented that the short story A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings by Gabriel Garcia Marquez was the only story originally written in a foreign language to be included on the One Story list. I was wrong. A Hunger Artist originally written in German. Another story I’m tracking down, Junot Diaz’s Aguantando, was written in Spanish. So far, I'm unable to find Aguatundo in an English translation.

Barthelme's The School: A Review

One Story Magazine recently listed their top ten favorite short stories, along with an additional twenty-six stories to flush out the “long list.” Donald Barthelme had three stories make the long list, more than any other writer. Here’s my recounting and review of one of them, The School. This story is written as if the teacher is telling the story to a friend. It’s written very casually, as though the teacher is trying to understand the string of events himself.

Throughout the school year, the students have continually encountered death. They planted orange trees that died. Before that, they kept snakes that died when the boiler was shut off during a school strike. The children had planted herb gardens which were apparently overwatered and died. The classroom also dealt with the death of gerbils, white mice, salamanders. Tropical fish died.

We weren’t even supposed to have a puppy.

The teacher tells how the class adopted a Korean child, and we adopted him too late or something. A few parents passed away during the year.

There were I think two heart attacks and two suicides, one drowning, and four killed together in a car accident.

Grandparents died too.

And finally the tragedy.

Two kids were were killed playing at an excavation site.

One day, the kids ask the teacher, where did they go? The kids ask increasingly poignant questions about death, as if they’ve matured into philosophical wizards. And then, the conversation turns:

They said, will you make love now with Helen (our teaching assistant) so that we can see how it is done?

The teacher informs the children he cannot make love to Helen. That he would be fired.

They said please, please make love with Helen, we require an assertion of value, we are frightened.

The teacher tells the children they shouldn’t be frightened, though he acknowledges to the reader that he is frightened himself.

Helen walks over and hugs him and he kisses her a few times on the forehead as the children grow excited.

The story ends with:

Then there was a knock on the door, I opened the door, and the new gerbil walked in. The children cheered wildly.

Barthelme builds the sequence of deaths so that eventually we find humor in the horribleness of death. We go from a tree, to reptiles and rodents, to puppies to humans. If anything, we learn life is a classroom and death continually raises unanswerable questions. What I love about this story is how the conversation turns from death to sex. The children have come to see the inevitability of death, and how awful it is. After learning about death, they feel compelled to learn about sex.

I once interviewed a woman (in her seventies) who told me she often felt sexual compulsions after she attended a funeral. She was speaking to the fact that when we are confronted with our own mortality up close, we are inclined to want to procreate, in some way we strive to find a path to immortality. This is not unusual. I’ll even remind readers of the scene in The Wedding Crashers where Will Ferrell moves on from weddings to funerals for picking up women. Barthelme's story ties these themes of sex, love and death together from a unique viewpoint. This is a very short, easy to read story that uses humor to touch on universal truths. It’s a great read and leaves me excited to explore more of Barthelme’s writing.

ShoplandiaBookCover5_5x8_5_Cream_290 copySHOPLANDIA, the debut novel by Jim Breslin, is a 2014 Summer Read. A novel told through stories, Shoplandia peels back the curtain to give a humorous glimpse into the familial bonds that form in the working lives of the crew at a home shopping network. Jim was a television producer at the home shopping channel QVC for seventeen years. To read reviews, click HERE!

Goodbye My Brother; My Review of a Cheever Classic

One Story Magazine recently listed their top ten favorite short stories, along with an additional twenty-six stories to flush out the “long list.” John Cheever's Goodbye, My Brother made the long list. This is a remarkable story, fully deserving of being the first reading in The Stories of John Cheever, notably known as “the red book.” This carries Cheever’s quintessential northeastern family, with their infighting and drinking, and their summers on the island.

While I do love Cheever, I have to admit his sentences flow on, like this one in the first paragraph:

I don’t think about the family much, but when I remember its members and the coast where they lived and the sea salt that I think is in our blood, I am happy to recall that I am a Pommeroy – that I have the nose, the coloring, and the promise of longevity – and that while we are not a distinguished family, we enjoy the illusion, when we are together, that the Pommeroys are unique.

Cheever tells the story of a brother who returns to the family vacation home which overlooks a cliff on the Atlantic. The brother, Lawrence, has been the black sheep of the family, and his return mars the summer vacation for the rest of the clan.

Lawrence observes the aging house and the eroding shoreline with disdain, and is vocal about his concerns. While the family, all adults now, seek to enjoy themselves drinking martinis, playing backgammon and tennis, Lawrence sulks around as if observing everyone and everything with hatred in his soul.

The family is invited to a costume dance with an invitation that reads, “come as you wish you were.” The narrator recounts this marvelous moment of seeing his wife in costume:

I mixed cocktails that night while she was dressing, and when I took a glass upstairs to her, I saw her for the first time since our marriage in her wedding dress. There would be no point in saying that she looked to me more beautiful than she did on our wedding day, but because I have grown older and have, I think, a greater depth of feeling, and because I could see in her face that night both youth and age, both her devotion to the young woman that she had been and the positions that she had yielded graciously to time, I think I have never been so deeply moved.

Following her lead, he dresses as football player. When they arrive at the costume dance, they discover many women have chosen to go as brides and many men have chosen to be football players. They are all living in the past.

What’s remarkable to me is how the narrator through his brother’s eyes, such as in this line:

And I knew Lawrence was looking bleakly at the party as he had looked at the weather beaten shingles on our house, as if he saw here an abuse and a distortion of time….

Eventually, the narrator and Lawrence have a confrontation and Lawrence packs up his dour family and leaves the island.

The story ends with the narrator looking out over the beach and seeing both his sister and his wife swimming in the sea, and then he observes them walking “naked, unshy, beautiful,” out of the ocean.

This story delicately plays off the metaphor of the aging house and the eroding shoreline. When combined with the costume dance, and the idea of trying to relive the past, the story becomes haunting. This is a marvelous story in the Cheever tradition.

Wolff's Bullet in the Brain: My Review

One Story Magazine recently listed their top ten favorite short stories, along with an additional twenty-six stories to flush out the “long list.” Tobias Wolff's Bullet in the Brain made the long list. I had first read this story at Rosemont Writers Retreat a few years ago, where it was taught and discussed. I re-read it this weekend and enjoyed it just as much. The story starts off in a bank, just before closing, where a long line of disgruntled customers has formed. Wolff introduces his main character here:

He was never in the best of tempers anyway, Anders - a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed.

This man is peckish, and as the women in the tellers’ line complain about the wait, he ridicules them like the sarcastic critic he has become at this point in life.

Moments later, two masked men burst through the doors intent on robbing the bank. Though these men are brandishing weapons and have just roughed up the security guard, Anders can’t help but be amused at their language, which is right out of the gangster movies.

“Hey! Bright boy! Did I tell you to talk?”

“No,” Anders said.

“Then shut your trap.”

“Did you hear that?” Anders said. “‘Bright boy.’ Right out of The Killers.”

At this point, the masked man approaches Anders and attempts to scare him into silence, and he uses phrases from more gangster movies.

“Fuck with me again, you’re history, Capiche?”

Anders burst out laughing.

This is Anders’s demise. He is shot in the head, and Wolff describes the physical repercussions in the most clinical way.

The rest of the story is a beautifully rendered recollection of what Anders is not thinking about, and finally what he is thinking about, as his life drains out of him. I loved how Wolff starts this section:

It is worth noting what Anders did not remember, given what he did recall.

Wolff lists out a full page of events in Anders life that he does not recall; his first love, his wife and daughter, seeing a woman commit suicide, his years of work. The list goes on extensively before Wolff writes:

This is what he remembered.

Wolff then describes a hot summer day when Anders was standing in the outfield playing baseball with neighborhood kids. One kid’s cousin, visiting from the south, utters the following:

“Shortstop, the boy says. “Short’s the best they is.”

Anders is strangely roused, elated, by those final two words, their pure unexpectedness and their music.

We come to see that Anders whole life has been about language and words, and that this love was both the high point of his life and the cause of his death.

In the first part of this story, Wolff balances the tension and the humor very well. It’s a terrifying situation yet it’s hard not to laugh as Anders guffaws at the gangster sayings. Anders is literally digging himself a grave with each sarcastic comment. But in the second half, as we review his life (even as he doesn’t) and see him on the baseball field as a kid, we come to understand where he came from and how he experienced great joy form language.

One Note: While I like this story, I personally believe Tobias Wolff’s Leviathan is a better story. If you are getting his book out to read Bullet in the Brain, read Leviathan also.

Carver's Cathedral: My Review

One Story Magazine recently listed their top ten favorite short stories, along with an additional twenty-six stories to flush out the “long list.” Raymond Carver's Cathedral made their top ten list. Cathedral starts simply enough.

This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night.

The narrator is a bit unnerved that his wife has invited an old friend of hers, a blind man named Robert, to come have dinner and sleep at their house. He describes how his wife used to work for this man for a summer years ago, and how afterward, they traded audio tapes in the mail instead of letters. We learn the blind man later was happily married for several years before his wife recently died. The blind man has built himself long lasting relationships through the years.

As Carver tells the backstory between the narrator’s wife and this blind man, we learn much about the narrator’s personality. He is a man who doesn’t believe in much. He is sarcastic and self centered, though humorous as well.

When the blind man arrives, they drink scotch, eat a huge dinner and retire to watch television. The blind man takes to calling the narrator, “bub,” which reinforces what we’ve come to learn about the narrator’s personality.

After dinner, the narrator rolls a couple of joints and the three of them get stoned. The wife sits on the couch between the men and falls asleep.

The narrator flips through some television channels and catches a documentary about cathedrals. They start watching. Throughout the show, the voice over pauses and the camera sweeps over these grand cathedrals, showing their magnificence. The narrator feels compelled to describe these scenes to the blind man. Eventually, he asks the blind man if he knows what a cathedral is.

The blind man replies:

“I know generations of the same families worked on a cathedral. I heard him say that too. The men who began their life’s work on them, they never lived to see the completion of their work. In that wise, bub, they’re no different from the rest of us, right?”

The narrator attempts to describe the cathedrals to the blind man.

“In those olden days, when they built cathedrals, men wanted to be close to God. In those olden days, God was an important part of everyone’s life. You could tell this from their cathedral building. I’m sorry,” I said, “but it looks like that’s the best I can do for you. I’m just no good at it.”

The blind man asks him, “But let me ask if you are in any way religious?”

I shook my head. “I guess I don’t believe in it. In Anything. Sometimes it’s hard. You know what I’m saying?”

“You’ll have to forgive me,” I said. “But I can’t tell you what a cathedral looks like. It just isn’t in me to do it. I can’t do any more than I’ve done.”

The blind man suggests the man get a pen and paper and draw a cathedral while the blind man holds his hand. The narrator does this and starts drawing a cathedral. He finds himself quite moved by the experience as his wife wakes up and wants to know what they are doing. The blind man tells him to close his eyes and draw.

“Are they closed?” he said. “Don’t fudge.”

“They’re closed, I said.

“Keep them that way, he said. He said, “Don’t stop now. Draw.” In the end, this man of no faith is transformed by his encounter. His life is the opportunity to build something magnificent and he must close his eyes and have faith in doing so.

This is a magnificent story because of Carver’s everyday language and scenes. The story is realism at it’s best. The story has no fantasy plot, no magical realism. In fact, the story was written after Tess Gallagher's friend, who was blind, visited her and Raymond.

I’ve personally always believed Carvers A Small, Good Thing, which touches on the theme of faith through the mourning process, was his greatest short story. Together with Cathedral, these two tales create the twin spires in Carver’s own legacy.

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson: My Review

One Story Magazine recently listed their top ten favorite short stories, along with an additional twenty-six stories to flush out the “long list.” Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery made the long list. This summer, I am reading or re-reading the stories and writing notes on each piece. This is the 20th or 36 stories on the list. Throughout all my years of schooling, I have to admit I’d never pulled the paper with the dot. I had never read The Lottery until about five years ago. Apparently this story is a high school classic, and I’m surprised that I had not read it. Do Catholic Schools not have this story in the curriculum?

Anyway, I had not read The Lottery until just a few years ago, and I can recall where I was when I read it and how chilling it was. The slow unfurling of events through this story are so subtle, the kids playing with rocks, the adults showing up in the town square and chatting amiably, Mrs. Hutchinson showing up late, claiming she’d forgotten what day it was.

As a writer, what I learned by reading this story is the “slow reveal.” Draw out the tension, hold back on the key details to build the suspense. Jackson breaks down the lottery into two rounds which supplies time to draw the tension out further.

“Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” The townspeople have believed the lottery leads to a bountiful harvest even though the lottery has nothing to do with results in the field. This superstition held by the townsfolk is what makes this piece so ominous. The town becomes a pack of wolves based on their superstition. Common sense would lead one to ask, why should I go to the lottery? But they go and participate because everyone else does. Like sheep. The sparseness of this story also allows it to stand the test of time.

It’s also interesting to read about the controversy surrounding the short story. When the story was first published in The New Yorker in 1948, readers were aghast at the story. Jackson and the magazine received hate mail and readers cancelled their subscriptions. It all seems so quaint now, that a short story could have such an effect on readers. Although we’ve come a long way with complex tales, this story still holds up as a classic.

The Devil All The Time: A Review

Donald Ray Pollock’s latest novel, The Devil All The Time, is gritty, disturbing, violent, disgusting, horrific, sad, and foul-mouthed. Parts of this novel are also brilliant. The sinners pray and the preachers prey. Pollock’s characters include idol-worshippers, pornographic killers, and a cripple who performs sodomy on a clown. This is not light stuff. Yet Pollock describes these horrible losers in ways that makes the reader chuckle, only to be left aghast in the next paragraph. He leaves just a hint of caricature in his description to take the edge off. In the prologue, Arvin Russell follows his father Willard to Willard’s prayer log in the woods behind their dilapidated rented house where they pray. Later that day Willard teaches his son how to fight by beating up a man who had made comments about Willard’s wife Charlotte. The prologue is hauntingly beautiful.

When Charlotte is diagnosed with cancer, Willard grows obsessed with daily prayers at the prayer log and starts sacrificing animals. The escalation of these sacrifices builds slowly and horrifically. The whole part one of this novel is brilliant, particularly Arvin’s final words at the end.

Another thread of the novel is a murderous couple who each year take time off in the summer to kill hitchhikers. Carl calls himself a photographer but is purely a lunatic. His wife Sandy is simply disgusting and sad. Carl’s preference is to take photos of the young hitchhikers in sexual positions with Sandy before he puts a gun to their head and ends their miserable lives.

There’s also a preacher and his crippled buddy who run off and join a circus after the preacher kills his wife in order to try test his skills and bring her back from the dead. Another preacher sleeps around with underage girls and knocks one up. When the girl realizes she will have to face the consequences alone, she goes into a shed and hangs herself. This is an excellent example of why Pollock is so haunting. He doesn’t leave the scene when she enters the shed and finds some rope. He describes her final moments; how the rope doesn’t break her neck. She realizes she could probably make this pregnancy work as her windpipe cinches shut and she tries to sway her feet to a box. It’s horrific and sad.

Pollock is often compared to Flannery O’Connor because of their grotesque gothic style. There is one big difference though - O’Connor was a devout Catholic with a strong sense of faith that showed up peculiarly through her stories. Pollock’s landscape is bleaker. Pollock’s settings are more reminiscent of Larry Brown and Harry Crews.

In The Devil All The Time, evil is always present and lurking, and waiting for you to hitch a ride.

I interviewed Donald Ray Pollock a few weeks ago. You can read the interview here.

Sea Oak - Scathing Satire by George Saunders

One Story Magazine recently listed their top ten favorite short stories, along with an additional twenty-six stories to flush out the “long list.” Sea Oak by George Saunders made the long list. Sea Oak is a disjointed comic story in more ways than one. I have to admit that my first attempt at reading this did not go well. Maybe I was tired, but the satire was a bit over the top in some ways. On my second reading, earlier during the next day, I stuck with this piece and it took off when Aunt Bernice died. Or I should say when she returned from the dead.

The story is about a poor family living in the projects, and the characters appear to be stereotypes. The two sisters are both unwed mothers. They sit around the house ingesting crappy television shows and processed food. Their brother, the narrator, works in some sort of strip show. The one sister says, “If we had our diplomas we could just watch TV and not be all distracted.” The sisters debate how many sides make up a triangle. The family lives in a deplorable housing project called Sea Oak. “There’s an ad hoc crack house in the laundry room and last week Min found brass knuckles in the kiddie pool.” Saunder’s description of the scene in the projects is both funny and despairing. There is a hopelessness to their situation.

At one point, Freddy tells them, “You kids make squat. And therefore you live in a dangerous craphole. And what happens in a dangerous craphole? Bad tragic shit. It’s the freaking American Way – you start out in a dangerous craphole and work hard so you can someday move up to a somewhat less dangerous craphole.”

When their Aunt Bernice dies, they don’t have money for a proper funeral. They have to purchase a casket made of balsa. Shortly after the funeral, a priest tells them Bernice’s body has been stolen. Bernice returns to the apartment in Christ-like fashion and gives the family explicit advice on how to get out of their dire situation.

Bernice continues rotting in their apartment. As her limbs fall off, she spouts out words of wisdom on how to get ahead in life. “Go show your cock!” She continually tells Thomas. She basically is implying the only way to get ahead in the world is to prostitute oneself. Although she died a virgin, Aunt Bernice is now regretting that she sacrificed her life to care for others and didn’t live more herself.

Not being an avid reader of satire, I found myself at first wondering about the stereotypes during the first part of the story, but as the story unfolded I saw Saunder’s commentary is truly scathing and covers a number of themes: poverty, capitalism and religion. It’s a very worthwhile read.

Out of the One Story list of 36 recommended stories, this was the 19th story I've written about this summer.

Have You Met Belle Starr? Bausch's Classic Tale

One Story Magazine recently listed their top ten favorite short stories, along with an additional twenty-six stories to flush out the “long list.” Richard Bausch’s The Man Who Knew Belle Starr made the long list. My summer project is to read or re-read the 36 stories listed. Bausch's gripping tale of death is #18. This my type of story.

Having recently been let out of Leavenworth, Mcrae decides to head west with some cash in his pocket and feels that his luck may have changed for the better. He picks up a young woman who is hitchhiking. She calls herself Belle Star. They have an awkward conversation, and Mcrae admits to himself, “she was kind of good looking around the eyes and mouth.”

In direct clear prose, Bausch fills us in with the backstory of how Mcrae has spent time in prison after beating up a sergeant in his platoon and how Mcrae’s father had died.

“He started to feel like a happy man, out of Leavenworth and the air force, and now he was on his way to Nevada, or someplace like that – and he had picked up a girl.”

When the two pull off the road at an empty diner, the owner of the place starts preparing their plates while griping about his financial troubles. The owner makes a sexual innuendo to Belle Starr and she pulls out a gun and shoots the diner owner dead. Mcrae is horrified and suggests she take the keys and leave, but Belle doesn’t drive and insists on Mcrae leaving with her.

They get in the car and start heading west, and Mcrae’s mind races. He suggests he could join up with Belle Starr so she can form a gang, she has leadership qualities, but she doesn’t like this idea.

There’s this great scene where she suggests they drive until the car runs out of gas and then Belle will just hitchhike from there. Mcrae slowly comes to realize that when the gas tank runs dry his death is inevitable.

Eventually, Belle tells McRae to pull off the side of the road even though there is still gas in the tank. As he gets out, he tries to make an escape, running across the road just before a truck passes by. But Mcrae’s outcome is without doubt. The last line of the story reads:

"Mcrae was gone, someone far, far away, from ages ago–a man fresh out of prison, with the whole country to wander in, and insurance money in his pocket, who had headed west with the idea that maybe his luck, at long last, had changed."

I had read The Stories of Richard Bausch a few years ago, and this story stuck out as the best. Tension sets in from the first paragraph. The thought that this man is trying to change his luck by heading out west, the tough times he has faced in his life, ring true. Bausch writes cleanly. There’s no extemporaneous chatter in this story. The landscape is barren and stifling. The dialogue is intense and stark. We are all going to meet Belle Starr in some way. The question is, will she allow us to drive our car until it runs out of gas? Either way, our luck will ultimately come to an end.

I also can’t help be reminded of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. In her memoir written about the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, she wrote about a phrase he used frequently. If someone was having extreme good luck, or perhaps bad luck, he often noted, “It all evens out in the end.” It was only after Dunne's death that the weight of his statement was felt on Didion herself.

Lorrie Moore's Dance in America: My Review

One Story Magazine recently listed their top ten favorite short stories, along with an additional twenty-six stories to flush out the “long list.” Lorrie Moore’s Dance in America made the top ten. In my quest to read each of these stories, I was bound to encounter a few I don't like. This is the second story to fall in that category. When I first started reading Dance in America, I realized I already knew this short story. I had listened to it last summer on the New Yorker fiction Podcast and had not really loved the story. So I dialed in the podcast again and read the text while listening to Louise Erdrich read the story along with me. The story begins:

I tell them dance begins when a moment of hurt combines with a moment of boredom.

The female narrator says this as though she believes in the importance of dance, though she also suggests she does not really believe it. She is an unreliable narrator, recently separated from her partner, seemingly lost. Now, I like lost souls, and I have no problem with unreliable narrators, (see my Denis Johnson review) but I had trouble putting myself in this narrator’s skin.

In the story, the narrator pays a visit to an old college friend who is married with a 7-year-old son who suffers from cystic fibrosis. She is in town to teach dance at the local schools. The depictions of her old friend Cal, his wife, and the friend’s young son Eugene, were vivid and entertaining. Cal lives in a dilapidated house where the pots and pans have to be retrieved from the attic where they are used to catch rain water as it comes through the roof.

During dinner, she reveals that she has broken up with Patrick, who she had been with for a long time, and it is suggested that Patrick left her because she is selfish. They have an entertaining conversation about love and death. After dinner, she dances with the sickly Eugene to a Kenny Loggins tune. The boy asks her to wave to him the next day when she walks by his classroom at school.

“Sure, I say, not knowing that, in a rush, I will forget, and that I’ll be on the plane home already, leafing through some inane airline magazine, before I remember that I forgot to do it.”

The story’s final page has her dancing with Eugene through the living room to a Kenny Loggins song.

“I am not, Patrick, thinking only of myself, my lost troupe, my empty bed. I am thinking of the dancing body’s magnificent and ostentatious scorn.”

Lorrie Moore is known for her blending of comic elements with tough issues. While I enjoyed the scene around the table with the narrator and Cal’s family, I did not feel the rhythm in this story. But I’ve never been a graceful dancer. Maybe it’s because I’m not a fan of dance, or maybe because I’m not a Kenny Loggins fan, but this story did not carry me away.

Have you read it? Are you a fan of the story? If so, I’d love to hear what you enjoyed about it. What connected you?

The Devil All The Time: Donald Ray Pollock On Writing

Donald Ray Pollock’s 2008 short story collection, Knockemstiff, is a collection of raw and powerful short stories about life in the “holler” of Knockemstiff, Ohio. While his descriptions are humorous, the characters and their actions are often horrific. In Don's version of Knockemstiff, characters are striving to escape their desperate lives by huffing Bactine, popping steroids, committing incest and other random acts of violence. The first story, "Real Life," starts with:

“My father taught me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive-in when I was seven years old. It was the only thing he was ever good at.”

At times, Don’s stories are not easy to read, though they are very tough to put down. These are dark and gritty tales. I devoured the collection and became such a fan that I drove to Johns Hopkins University to see Don give a reading to MFA students in April, 2009. The Director of the program introduced Don by comparing his work to Flannery O’Connor. While there, Don read some scenes from his work in progress. I can still recall the tension as he first revealed this husband and wife roaming the back roads of West Virginia on a killing spree. This murderous couple is one of the three threads of his new novel, The Devil All The Time. In her review for the Columbus Dispatch, Margaret Quamme wrote: “Beneath the gothic horror is an Old Testament sense of a moral order in the universe, even if the restoration of that order itself requires violence.”

Here’s an excerpt from the first page of The Devil All The Time, which was just released on July 12th:

"Unless he had whiskey running through his veins, Willard came to the clearing every morning and evening to talk to God. Arvin didn't know what was worse, the drinking or the praying. As far back as he could remember, it seems that his father had fought the Devil all the time."

Interviewer: I was struck by the similarities of the opening of the novel with the short story "Real Life." In both, a father beats up a man in front of his young son. There's many differences too, of course. Can you tell me about your interest in the theme of a father's influence on his son?

Pollock: Well, for many of us, the father is the biggest influence in our lives, at least during what might be called the "formative" years. That's the way it used to be anyway. And my father was a tough, hard-as-nails man with a very forceful personality (and he's still kicking at eighty-one). I, on the other hand, took after my mother quite a bit. She's small-boned and quiet and a bit shy. It was impossible for me to be like my dad, and I think he was disappointed in that when I was growing up. Though I eventually came to terms with that, I think it did leave a mark.

Interviewer: How much do you think your novel has changed from when you read that excerpt at John Hopkins back in April, 2009?

Pollock: At that point, back in the spring of 2009, I only had three characters that I was working with: Arvin, the boy, and the serial killer couple. I was still trying to figure out the "story," and that took until around the end of that year. The other characters came along as I kept working, and so I guess the novel did change in many ways over time. In the beginning, the novel was going to be based almost entirely on the serial killers, and then, as these other characters popped up, I decided to try several different storylines and have them converge near the end.

Interviewer: So after working in a paper mill for thirty-two years, you went back to school for a MFA. Knockemstiff was published while you were still a student. What was that experience like?

Pollock: Everyone, or almost everyone, in a MFA program wants, more than anything, to publish a book, and I got lucky, plain and simple. I did start getting asked to submit to magazines and I was interviewed some, but really, most things stayed pretty much the same for me. I know I had this idea that my life would be different after I published a book--and I think many beginning writers think the same way-- but that's not what happened. As for grad school itself, it was a wonderful experience, with the exception of teaching freshman comp!

Interviewer: I recall you talking about how you wrote in your attic each day without distractions. Is that still your routine?

Pollock: Yes, I still write in my attic. There's no internet or phone up there. That stuff takes away your ability to stay focused, and so it stays downstairs. Too, though I can see the benefits of technology and "social networking"--heck, I'm on Facebook now and have a website--you shouldn't allow it to take over your life. To feel that someone should know your every move, or that you need to know what someone else is doing every minute of the day, is, frankly, insane behavior.

Interviewer: What's one piece of advice you'd give a writer who is making the move from writing short stories to writing a novel?

Pollock: Read as many novels as possible, then write a really sloppy, rough draft of the book as fast as you can. By the time you finish revising that, you might not have much left of the original draft, but you'll have something to work with.

Jhumpa Lahiri's "Sexy" - A Review

Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story, "Sexy," is the most provocative title of the short stories listed on the One Story Magazine’s Favorite Short Story List. They published their top ten favorite short stories, along with an additional twenty-six stories to flush out the “long list,” and I’m reading and reviewing each of them over the summer. This story "Sexy" intercuts two stories about extramarital affairs that comes to reveal what the term sexy means. The story starts:

It was a wife’s worst nightmare.

Miranda’s co-worker Laxmi is continually updating Miranda about her cousin, who has been left by her husband for a younger woman. Miranda keeps hearing parts of this story while keeping her own secret, she has started having an affair herself.

Laxmi details how her cousin’s husband is leaving her for a young woman in London, and how her cousin hasn’t gotten out of bed since learning the news. The cousin’s son hasn’t been to school for the past week.

Meanwhile, Miranda met her lover in a Filene’s. Dev spends every day with Miranda while his wife is away on a trip. He buys her flowers, they go to movies and to dinner each night. At one point, as they visit the Mapparium, Dev whispers to Miranda, “You’re sexy.”

Miranda feels the shift occur as Dev’s wife returns to the States. “While Dev was at the airport, Miranda went to Filene’s Basement to buy herself things she thought a mistress should have.”

Of course, the intensity of the affair cools off. Dev tells his wife he is going to run along the Charles River on Sunday mornings, but instead sees Miranda. He shows up in sweatpants and only stays a short time each week.

As the story progresses, Laxmi’s cousin and her young son come to visit Boston and Laxmi asks Miranda to watch the boy for a day. The boy is precocious, and asks personal questions of Miranda. He finds Miranda’s slinky cocktail dress that she has bought to play the role of the mistress, but now she never wears it since Dev only comes over for a quickie once a week.

The boy asks Miranda to put the dress on. An odd request, but she is kind of bemused and flustered and so she does. “You are sexy,” the boy tells her. She is taken back that the boy would use this word. She asks him to define sexy and he does so, as a child whose father has left his mother, would. But his response reveals a larger truth about what the word sexy means and how it’s interpreted in our culture today.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s story "Sexy" appears in Interpreter of Maladies, her first short story collection.


"Do Not Disturb" disturbs: My review of the AM Homes story

For those new here, my summer reading project is reading or re-reading all thirty-six of the stories listed on One Story Magazine’s Favorite Short Story List. They published their top ten favorite short stories, along with an additional twenty-six stories to flush out the “long list.” A.M. Homes short story, Do Not Disturb, is one of the best of the fifteen stories I’ve read so far. From the opening lines, this brutal story about a loveless marriage is filled with palpable tension.

My wife, the doctor, is not well. In the end she could be dead.

The story is narrated by the husband who is unsettled by tense situations. Their marriage has gone sour, and now his wife, who unrepentantly refers to herself as “a bitch,” becomes sick. When he first suggests the hospital, she replies, “I don’t want to be the doctor who goes to the ER with gas.”

The wife doctor is cold and calculating. When she discovers she has cancer, she declares, “I want a number,” she says. “A survival rate.” And then she tells her husband, “You don’t have to stay with me now that I have cancer. I don’t need you. I don't need anyone. I don’t need anything.”

She undergoes a hysterectomy, and it’s as though her capability to love has been surgically removed as well. After starting chemo and her hair falls out, she continues working. Over time, it appears their roles have been reversed. The wife has become the cold one while the husband seeks tenderness.

The husband asks, “How do you feel?”

“I feel nothing.”

“How can you feel nothing.”

“I am made of steel and wood,” she says happily.

She has shut down and rejects the husband’s attempts not just to comfort her, but to comfort himself as well. He asks her for a hug and she scoffs, “I have no interest in being human.”

The prose throughout is clean and sharp. The story moves quickly, jumping from one fraught scene to another. A.M. Home adds in moments of humor to keep the story moving and balance the horribleness of it all. The husband tries one last ditch effort to find tenderness by taking his sick wife to Paris. Once there, he realizes there is no chance to save their marriage. I won’t spoil the ending here.

What’s really interesting here is how brutal the wife is, she’s not likeable at all. The reader empathizes with the husband more, or at least I did. But at the same time, the cruelty of the wife is totally believable. We all have the capacity to shut down our humanity, which is the frightening aspect of this tale.

This short story appears in Things You Should Know by A.M. Homes. I definitely plan on returning and reading more of her stories.