In a writing workshop I participated in this past spring, this story was recommended to one of the other students. The recommendation was made in regard to a family dinner scene the student was trying to pin down, and it just wasn’t working. The workshop instructor recommended this story as a great example of a compelling dinner scene. She was right. But, man, the story was so much more than that.
As the internet wildly proclaimed this summer, The New Yorker opened their archives. Did you catch that? The New Yorker opened their archives. This means that all of The New Yorker‘s pieces were available to read for free. But, it’s only for a limited time. So, I’m not sure if this link will continue to work…
This piece, published as debut fiction in 2000, was available to read for free prior to the opening of the archives, so I’m hoping the link remains active into the future. If not, well, hunt down the story elsewhere perhaps. It’s worth it.
Chase Us is the first collection published by author Sean Ennis. This collection of eleven short stories focuses around the same group of boys growing up in the outskirts of Philadelphia. Themes that dominate the collection are captivity, maturation, sex, friendship, loyalty, fear, and a desire for more than we have. For the most part, the narrator appears to be the same for all the stories, and as the stories in the collection progress, the characters age and (attempt to) mature. For someone like me who devoured Judy Blume and Linda Lewis, it was interesting to read about tween and teen boys; to see how they experienced some of the same fears and insecurities. (Although this collection is clearly darker and more for an adult audience than either of those two women I mentioned.)
This collection started out with great promise. I greatly enjoyed the first story in the collection and the interesting situations and details that are woven together. The voice and tone is spot on for a young pre-teen boy, and the family dynamic was heartbreakingly accurate. Stories that immediately followed this one were equally as compelling.
As the boys in the stories aged and matured, however, it felt like the stories did not. Where Ennis had such a solid grasp on the voices of the boys at ages 11, 12, and 13, when they approached manhood—high school, college, marriage, parenthood—the stories seemed to take a surreal turn to avoid confronting a failure to really grasp their growth, their adult voices. On some level, I realize that the narrator and the other characters were under the influence of drugs and alcohol in these later stories in the collection, and this did flavor their experiences and the narratives. However, the stories’ movement out of the real and into the surreal felt like a crutch to avoid showing how life really shakes out for these men. Rather than carrying on with the harsh reality that stories like “Going after Lovely,” “This is Pennypack,” and “Saint Kevin of Fox Chase” portrays, stories like “This is Recession” and “Chase Us” introduced elements of surrealism and unresolved plot points that left me scratching my head and wondering why I couldn’t see what “really” was going on. Why were the stories hiding the “good stuff”?
Take away for my writing:
I’ve accepted I’m not a novelist. I am a short story writer right now. But I think one way to move from short stories to a longer work is to connect my stories together. I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a collection of interlinked stories (which I would classify this collection as). What I hope to take away from Chase Us is the importance of keeping the tone and style similar across the board. I think this can be important for all story collections, but when the stories are so closely related, it becomes of even greater importance.
The collections I have loved the most have been the ones that don’t necessarily share characters or locations or even time period. Instead, they are the ones that share tone and style. The progression of the stories feels natural as I read them and the themes are universal and valuable throughout. With this collection, however, the later stories felt significantly weaker. By tracing the growth and aging of his characters, the author didn’t do any favors for those characters or for the readers.
Strengths: well-wrought characters; strong capture of youthful voice in narration
Weaknesses: failure to grasp older characters with same strength in voice; surreal elements felt gimmicky and contrived
Favorites: “Going after Lovely,” “This is Pennypack,” “Saint Kevin of Fox Chase”
Least favorites: “Chase Us,” “This is Recession,” “Dependents,” “This is Tomorrow”
Earlier this year, I accepted a new position as the Production Editor of fairly well-known literary magazine. It was an amazing opportunity and it has worked out better than I could have hoped. I get to work with some amazing people, read some wonderful stories, and help produce a fantastic literary magazine.
So, in the interest of shameless self-promotion, go read the stories in Carve magazine. All of them.
Okay, not really all of them. But all of the stories published from 2007 to the present are available to read online for free, so go make the most of it! Read ’em all until you’re cross-eyed. Or, read two or three. And subscribe to the print-based premium edition (which is what I help to create) because it has even more awesome features, including author interviews, in addition to the stories.
In life, there are often quiet moments. There are often quiet moments that are masking a hidden current of electricity so palpable the room seems to vibrate. But still, the moment itself is quiet.
This piece of flash fiction is one of those kind of moments.
You Only Get Letters from Jail is Jodi Angel’s second short story collection. The collection follows young men between adolescence and adulthood. Angel’s characters are desperate. They are motivated by cars, women, and hope for an escape from circumstances that leave them hopeless and trapped. As noted in an online description “Angel’s gritty and heartbreaking prose leaves readers empathizing with people they wouldn’t ordinarily trust or believe in.”
Whoa. This collection really blew me away. I became distracted and several months passed between when I read the book and when I initially set out to write this review. To refresh my memory, I went back and re-read a few stories and the reaction was the same. That I could return to the collection and react in almost the exact same way is a testament to the absolute power of the stories. I can’t wait to read her first collection, The History of Vegas. Angel’s writing is raw and brutal in its precision and heartbreaking depth. Her ability to inhabit and capture her male characters was inspiring. Every main character in the collection is male and most are from a first person perspective, which is fascinating because Jodi Angel, of course, is female. I love it when writers push boundaries in narration and writing style, but to do it so completely and successfully, and sustain it throughout, was a delight to read.
Take away for my writing:
This collection moved me to take chances. To keep writing the brutal life experiences that I write and not be afraid. To keep embracing the dark side of humanity, remembering that I can pull empathy and beauty from unexpected places. It’s my goal to try to give my readers an experience similar to the one that Angel gave me.
Strengths: Character depiction, realistic situations, emotional resonance
Weaknesses: The desperation and lack of hope in many of the stories might wear on some readers, I suppose.
Favorites: “A Good Deuce,” “Snuff,” “You Only Get Letters from Jail” (and others)
Least favorites: “Gap,” “Catch the Grey Dog”
A lot of flash fiction relies on the “punch” ending. There is sometimes a strange twist. An unexpected outcome. Or just something that blindsides the reader. Sometimes these work, and sometimes they feel a bit contrived.
And, sometimes, they are so subtle and unexpected, and the foundation is so well written and established, that the ending almost leaves you breathless. That’s the case for this week’s selection.
As someone who has suffered from panic attacks and GAD (generalized anxiety disorder) for most of my adult life, I know the complexity and challenges of explaining how this feels to someone who is inexperienced in it. For that reason, any time I come across a piece of writing that encapsulates that experience effectively, I’m drawn in.
This particular short story does just that, explaining the irrationality and the overwhelming fear that can occur.
Go read “Traffic Jam” by Jen Bresnick.
The story for today is intriguing and captivating, but is based on such a simple (yet unique) premise.
Go read “Transit Wives” written by Timothy Marsh.