This week’s selection is a bit longer than most of the stories I’ve previously shared. I try to keep it short, but this particular story is so, so great.
It was worth breaking from my traditional M.O.
I think I’ve mentioned before how a unique premise is essential to draw a reader in, and this particular story definitely has that. But, it also has vivid setting and beautiful language and some of the best description and verb use I’ve seen in flash fiction.
In the interest of full disclosure, the author of this week’s selection is also my current teacher in the Short Fiction workshop I’m participating in through Gotham Writing School. And she’s just as fantastic as a teacher as she is a writer. (And I don’t think she reads this blog, so this honestly isn’t me attempting to suck up.)
If you haven’t realized yet, SmokeLong Quarterly is one of my favorite journals. They really do find and publish some of the greatest work being written today. Some of the best flash fiction I’ve read in the past couple of years has been in their journal, and this particular story is no exception.
Check out Chase Burke’s “The Baseball Bat.”
Nine Inches is Tom Perrotta’s first official story collection. He’s published a few novels (I’ve read one, The Leftovers), some of which have been adapted as films (Election and Little Children). His stories chronicle the innate longing for more than we have and the poor choices we make, which end up solidifying that we won’t ever get what we long for. He’s been called the “Steinbeck of suburbia” by some reviewers, and the title seems appropriate. Like Steinbeck, though, I think Perrotta is a novelist more than he is a short story writer.
This is the second book of Perrotta’s that I’ve read (the first was the novel The Leftovers), and I think I’m just not a fan of his work in general. I think he has a particular reader, a particular audience, and I’m just not one of them. This isn’t meant to detract from his writing, but I think it’s just the way it is.
I can see some value in his work. He paints vivid character portraits and he creates realistic situations in this collection of short stories. His characters find themselves experiencing circumstances that are as believable as they are unfortunate, and the characters’ choices are often implicated in those circumstances. The majority of his characters make the bad choices we all consider when reacting to situations, but most of us avoid these choices, erring on the side of ethics, politeness, and appropriate behavior. This element in his collection—characters pushing the boundaries of “acceptable” behavior—is interesting; tracing the downward spiral of these characters as they come undone is intriguing and heartrending. But there’s something about it that doesn’t ring true for me.
To think of this collection in terms of a Hemingway view of stories (i.e., the “iceberg” principle), we see the entire surface, but we never really understand what’s “under the water.” Perrotta’s strong suit is creating a vivid premise with solid believable characters, but that’s where it ends. There was an element of predictability and superficiality that soured me right away with the first (and weakest) story, “A Back Rub.” The story never really satisfied. Things happen to the character. He reacts. And, at the end, we get a recap of where is life heads because of his poor choices. But we’re never given the chance to care about or root for him. The clichéd and banal nature of several stories had me feeling like I was “treading water” as I made my way through the pages (examples would be “One-Four-Five, “The Test Taker,” and “Grade My Teacher”); I never really cared about the characters or their circumstances.
Other stories that were more successful were also a bit less conventional, still keeping with the same realistic level of premise and situation. Stories like “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face” and “Nine Inches,” relied on the same trite suburban themes, but rather than being formulaic, they felt more authentic. The characters made some sort of revelation or achieved at least some level of growth, which made the stories more successful than the others. I felt something for the characters because they unveiled a bit of what was beneath the surface, and as a reader, I need that “under the water” glimpse to propel me forward.
Take away for my writing:
Yes, Virginia, there is a difference between novel writers and short story writers. And, after analyzing this particular collection, I think I admire even more greatly those writers who successfully move back and forth from short stories to novels with (seemingly) effortless talent. In my opinion, Perrotta is, quite simply, a novelist and not a short story writer. Successful short stories need to be whole and unified; they need to communicate a story that has a solid beginning, middle, and end, with flash points of climax that aren’t too “big” or overwrought for their briefer length. The stories in this volume feel like they’re trying to be novels (or, really, novel summaries). Rather than having just one or two flash points of solid tension, they’re riddled with tepid points of semi-tension throughout, leaving them as summaries or synopses of a bigger tale, rather than full and complete works unto themselves. With some development and added detail, I could envision almost every short story in the collection as a novel or novella. I had the distinct impression that each of them was a novel idea that Perrotta just didn’t flesh out or finish, and that’s not the reading experience one wants with a short story collection.
Strengths: Vivid portraits, accessible and entertaining writing style
Weaknesses: Uneven plotting, failure to delve into characters’ psyches, predictability and clichés
Favorites: “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face,” “Nine Inches,” and “Kiddie Pool”
Least favorites: (all the rest of them)
Welding with Children is Tim Gautreaux’s second collection of short stories. It was published in 1999, but for some reason it kept appearing on my radar when I was looking for short story collections to read this year. Gautreaux is a southern writer (lives in Louisiana) and has been referred to as the “Cartographer of Louisiana back roads,” a moniker that is highly appropriate for this collection.
The stories in this collection are varied and diverse, but a tight, strong thread binds them all. The elements of similarity that run throughout the stories, however, never make them feel “one note” or repetitive. Each piece tells its own unique story, with an intriguing plot, rich characters, and an identifiable theme. The themes addressed all seemed to focus on the disconnects and barriers in life, both those that are inflicted on us and those that we create. I think that the collection, as a whole, is one of the more unified I have read.
I found that the obscurity and juxtaposition hinted at in the collection’s title (also the title of one of the stories) gave solid indication of the disparities and binary oppositions that occurred throughout the book: old/young, rich/poor, educated/uneducated, etc. Gautreaux is telling stories that are not pleasant. They are filled with individuals at the margins of “acceptable” society. But, despite this, or perhaps because of this, Gautreaux infuses each story with an affection and warmth that translates well to the reader, making us root for certain characters, even when a part of us thinks perhaps we shouldn’t.
My one complaint is the astonishing abundance of Cajun surnames. I realize the stories all take place in Louisiana, so the names, of course, make sense. However, it’s almost never necessary for a reader to know every character’s last name—especially when almost every single one ends in -eaux.
Take away for my writing:
Gautreaux is successful in one area that at times eludes me in short story collections: unity. When the connection between stories is apparent (a recurring character or specific setting, for example), that’s one thing. But sometimes, collections don’t feel cohesive. There is no apparent unification beyond the byline that they all share. But in these stories, Gautreaux fuses the stories with something that goes far deeper. He keeps the stories themselves diverse and unique, but they still all fit together as if they are pieces of a puzzle. While some stories are definitely stronger than others are, you can’t imagine the collection working as well without them all present and accounted for.
I’d like to go through the collection again at a later date (it’s a library book and has to be returned soon) and see if I can identify some more elements that connect the stories together so well. The quality is one that I’ve rarely found so effective in a collection, and I’d like to focus more on how, exactly, Gautreaux does this.
Strengths: diversity of narratives, strong characters in realistic situations, cohesive collection
Weaknesses: at times, the southern flavor can get a bit “precious” (example being the surnames)
Favorites: “Welding with Children,” “The Pine Oil Writers’ Conference,” and “Resistance” (among others)
Least favorites: “Misuse of Light” and “Sorry Blood”
I read stories published on Every Day Fiction quite frequently (although, admittedly, not every day). I’m a sucker for one word titles for some reason. If I come across a piece of flash fiction or a poem that has a one word title, I will almost always read it. In this particular instance, I was really glad I did.
published by Every Day Fiction
This particular story has one of the best lines I had read in some time:
“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”
I still return to that thought often. The story, as well, is powerful.
published by Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading
I have long been a fan of Stuart Dybek’s short fiction. If you want to know why, just read “We Didn’t” and that will explain it.
When I came across a link to this short story by Stuart Dybek’s son, Nick Dybek, I was intrigued.
The story didn’t disappoint. Of course, it’s published by Ploughshares so I wasn’t surprised.