NY Times Book Review


Short Stories: Squeeze Plays

By Maggie Galehouse

  • Feb. 20, 2005

YOU ARE NOT THE ONE Stories. By Vestal McIntyre. Carroll & Graf, paper, $13.95.

CALAMITY And Other Stories. By Daphne Kalotay. Doubleday, $19.95.

HERE BENEATH LOW-FLYING PLANES By Merrill Feitell. University of Iowa, paper, $15.95.

THIS IS A VOICE FROM YOUR PAST New and Selected Stories. By Merrill Joan Gerber. Ontario Review, $23.95.

DAMNED IF I DO Stories. By Percival Everett. Graywolf, paper, $15.

QUICK Stories. By T. M. McNally. University of Michigan, $24.

THE GIRL WHO MARRIED A LION And Other Tales From Africa. By Alexander McCall Smith. Pantheon, $20.

TELLING TALES Edited by Nadine Gordimer. Picador, paper, $14.

IN an age of split-second access to unlimited information, a short story is wonderfully finite: the end is always in sight. Yet the best short stories aren’t short on story at all. Instead, they manage to fit an unwieldy world into a very small space. The trick for the writer is to hide the muscle it takes to pull off that compression, convincing us that the world on the page spins easily beyond the story’s boundaries.

In You Are Not the One, Vestal McIntyre builds arresting, elegant fiction around situations that while often unlikely are not at all inconceivable. Most of his characters are social outcasts confronting their own brands of unbelonging: the boy in “Octo” who struggles to keep a pet octopus that has grown too large for its tank; the teenager in a kangaroo suit in “Sahara” who’s kidnapped after being mistaken for a high-school mascot. McIn-tyre’s stories can be funny, but in a scary, manic Augusten Burroughs kind of way. And when they aren’t — when they focus on something as unexpected as a high school student who sets out to read “Moby-Dick” to a cousin with Down syndrome — they’re crushingly sweet.

Daphne Kalotay’s collection of linked stories, Calamity: And Other Stories, visits three women over more than two decades. At 40, Annie is a sexy graduate student, back in bed with her ex-husband; in her 60’s, she’s a frizzy-haired feminist with sagging breasts and a not very exciting philosophy professorship. Her friend Eileen buries a young husband, reclaims her health and raises a son. Rhea is first seen as a girl, catching her mother impulsively kissing another woman; in one of Rhea’s parting shots, she’s pessimistically bracing for an emergency landing on an airplane. Kalotay’s collection builds force so quietly that when all the characters appear together in the final story you’re stunned — by how well it works and by how familiar these women now feel.

Merrill Feitell takes on the troubles of young, educated urban adults in Here Beneath Low-Flying Planes. Her characters are usually in the midst of awkward transitions: a woman, pregnant with her ex-boyfriend’s baby, attends his wedding to someone else; a new mother, irritated by her husband’s neediness, craves a bit of her pre-mom life. Feitell also has a knack for the odd, beautiful image. In a story called “And Then You Stand Up,” a woman with a maze of scars on her face starts to cry: “The first few tears traveled left across the web, then diagonally down, and then right. When those deepest lines filled, they overflowed to shallower scars, until the rivulets traversed in all ways the jagged ruts of her face. She often wondered if the scars would grow deeper, like the Grand Canyon, salt and motion eroding the left side of her to the bone.”

The new and selected stories in This Is a Voice From Your Past don’t reach for tidy endings or moments of insight. Instead, Merrill Joan Gerber bravely presents tales that are as disturbingly inconclusive as real life. Often, she captures characters whose lives have been interrupted by an ordinary-seeming glitch — a mother exerting too much control after her daughter’s baby is born; a neighbor becoming increasingly annoyed by the incessant barking of the dogs next door — and then sticks around to see how they handle it. In “Honeymoon,” a restless 19-year-old bride leaves her middle-aged husband at a Las Vegas casino and tries to hook up with a young couple at Hoover Dam. When the couple vanish, the newlywed just gets back on the tour bus, cursing her luck and studying her wedding picture.

Damned if I Do, Percival Everett’s wide-ranging new collection, is underpinned by a quiet intelligence and an acute sense of place. There’s a tall tale about a talking fish who saves a man’s marriage and a magical story about a man who can repair everything from a noisy refrigerator to a dead body. Occasionally, a black man shows up where white people don’t expect him: in a small town in Utah or a South Carolina bar, playing “Dixie.” Everett’s depiction of race is much like his treatment of everything else: straight up, without elaboration. “Hey, you’re black,” says an obese white man who has just threatened Austin, a character in “Afraid of the Dark.” “I know,” Austin replies, studying the man’s fist. “I would prefer if you didn’t hit me.”

The title of T. M. McNally’s new collection, Quick, refers not to speed but to the essence of a thing — as in “cut to the quick.” These dense, dark stories, set mostly in the Southwest, show fractured characters struggling just to survive. In the strongest selections, McNally starts with ripples of dysfunction and then edges into the hollow of pain where they began. But while McNally articulates despair with deadly accuracy, he occasionally musters some dryly humorous postmodern optimism. Says the narrator of “Wonderland”: “First comes love, then comes loss. And what follows always is a chance to go outside, wander down the drive and check the mail.”

Alexander McCall Smith, best known for the “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series, has gathered traditional stories from Zimbabwe and Botswana in The Girl Who Married a Lion: And Other Tales From Africa. These quick, plainly told fables feature places where people and animals live in close proximity and somebody has to walk miles to a river every day just to collect water. The personalities of Africa’s animals — the wiliness of the hare, the gullibility of the lion, the laziness of the baboon — take shape as the book proceeds. And there are clear moral lessons here, useful for parents everywhere. “The Grandmother Who Was Kind to a Smelly Girl” could not, for example, be more strident in its message that parents must love their children, even at what looks (or smells) like their worst.

Finally, the Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer has reprinted 21 stories from some of the biggest names in contemporary fiction for a worthy cause. The profits from Telling Tales will go to provide H.I.V. and AIDS preventive education and to treat patients of the disease in southern Africa. A collection that slips John Updike between Günter Grass and Chinua Achebe, José Saramago between Arthur Miller and Es’kia Mphahlele, is truly an international mix of plot and character. For readers who need a break from collections seasoned by one author’s sensibility, this stew of humanity is a welcome change.

CHRONICLE SHORT STORIES Maggie Galehouse is a reporter for The Arizona Republic.A version of this article appears in print on Feb. 20, 2005, Section 7, Page 20 of the National edition with the headline: CHRONICLE SHORT STORIES; Squeeze Plays. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe