How many fiction authors these days remember that storytelling is a branch of medicine? Good stories act like a tonic to keep a culture’s psychosocial circulatory system flowing. Stories are also entertaining, to be sure, but so is food and, if we’re lucky, work; the best things in life are always entertaining in addition to being good for you. Unfortunately, this seems to be a point many fiction writers have forgotten in the late part of the last century, an era in which your average literary work has had more to do with onanistic self-expression than with the creation of Zeitgeist. All this is by way of saying that it’s an unexpected pleasure to find a trio of story collections that act on the political/spiritual/social level of consciousness, by authors who modestly set out to re-imagine the human universe as a kind of healing mirror for their readers.
Mark Kurlansky is best known for his nonfiction best-seller Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. He is also the author of The Basque History of the World and spent seven years as the Chicago Tribune’s Caribbean correspondent. Kurlansky is a keen, witty observer of the intimate details of social politics and is adept at connecting them to world-scale politics. In his first work of fiction, The White Man in the Tree and Other Stories, Kurlansky uses his variegated background and droll sense of humor to good effect, painting pictures of life in small Caribbean nations that make these “known” places come alive as heretofore undiscovered parallel universes to our own, as vivid and different as anything imagined by H.G. Wells.
In “Beautiful Mayagüez Women,” female Puerto Rican factory workers trying to get by in an enterprise zone where only women are considered for employment inadvertently create a full-blown transvestite culture, which in turn creates a secondary economy of its own around hair and nail salons for men. This story is so funny that one hardly notices the succinct lesson in Third World economics that goes with it. In “The Unclean,” an American rabbi is imported for show by the tiny Jewish community of a small island nation. His futile quest for a kosher meal results in the development of a new chicken industry, though the definition of “clean” meat is hilariously perverted along the way. Not all of the stories concern trade. “The White Man in the Tree” is about the long-term love affair between a Scandinavian filmmaker and his Haitian mistress, a relationship that is eventually doomed when each party learns the emotional folkways of the other. Both are left the richer and wiser for it, one could say, but both are also left as confused expatriates from their own emotional traditions.
Kurlansky’s newly minted stories are as magically told as myths, and as apocryphal as they are, they ring true to anyone who has experienced the way things work in a foreign land out of step with the global economy. This collection is a window into the absurd, happenstance ways in which all culture comes about, and Kurlansky’s rapier insight into this process is remarkably compassionate and humble. Those self-righteous, humorless ignoramuses protesting globalization in Seattle and Quebec would do well to take a break and read Kurlansky for some insight into how to think and feel about “free trade” and the Third World — or any world, for that matter.
In Dossier, Stepan Chapman sets out deliberately to mythologize everything under the sun, and his collection of brief stories is a whirlwind tour of past, present and future worlds, some recognizable as English or Inuit, some purely sci-fi (Chapman’s previous novel, The Troika, won the Philip K. Dick Award). Happily, the stories in Dossier are more influenced by the Brothers Grimm than Joseph Campbell. In “At Her Ladyship’s Suggestion,” a windswept island off the coast of England is inhabited by a strange, inbred culture cut off from the rest of civilization, and ruled by a violent, inbred royal family. In “Nocturne,” two sentient creatures grown magically out of detritus — a swamp-thing and a junkyard-thing — do battle in the streets of a town at night. Chapman’s imagination is distinctive, yet his style is self-effacing. The stories read as if they have been told and retold over generations, the idiosyncrasies of voice rubbed smooth over time. Did Chapman rewrite these stories over and over â to get them just so? Whatever his method, the result is pure story, stripped of voice. A very rare thing to encounter.
Rarer still is the kind of storytelling that peeks out of prolific Northwest author Barry Lopez’s new collection, Light Action in the Caribbean. Few authors are able to describe nature with the compelling gorgeousness of Lopez at his best, such as in the 1986 Arctic Dreams, his narrative of several trips made to the far north. But something truly wonderful is happening in this strange collection of short stories. There’s a trend afoot these days to publish only story collections with a theme (i.e., stories all about mermaids, or all about a junkie named Gary), and that’s fine, but a disparate, disjointed collection of stories can be a highly pleasurable workout for a reader. Light Action in the Caribbean is the work of an experienced master craftsman pushing his limits.
Some of Lopez’s stories are pastoral and meditative, such as “Remembering Orchards,” an achingly beautiful memoir of a stepfather and the missed opportunities to communicate with him. Glimpses of the emotional landscape embedded in the physical orchard are so powerful they suck the breath away. This ravishing beauty is Lopez’s stock-in-trade, but elsewhere he exhibits his diverse talents and always keeps you guessing. The title story, in which two boorish tourists meet a bleak and gory end, is entirely free of compassion. As the only story here like this (thank goodness), it’s arresting, though ultimately lightweight for all its brutality. Strange that this is the title story, as it’s also the slightest — and especially since two of the stories in this book are masterpieces.
“The Letters of Heaven” is about two historical figures in Peru, a noblewoman and a priest, both sainted, but known here through the couple’s secret love letters and the man who inherits them. We never see the text of the letters, but possession of them shapes the life of their guardian as he learns to reconcile the spiritual with the erotic. This is one of those stories that can forever change you; it’s like reading your favorite of Salinger’s Nine Stories for the first time. Like Salinger, Lopez is concerned ultimately with spiritual survival, and approaches it with all of the optimism and energy of a science-fiction master. “The Letters of Heaven” works because Lopez makes the commingling of sex and spiritual ecstasy act like nuclear fusion — a discovery important enough to launch a new religion, or send a civilization into space. This is a story to be read over and over again, at various stages in one’s life, as a spiritual reality check — much the way the letters of the story figure for the narrator.
In the final story, “The Mappist,” a geographer tracks down an eccentric researcher whose meticulous though obscure work likewise threatens to be so revelatory that the old, comfortable views we hold of who, where and what we are can scarcely survive. “Nobody has the time for this kind of fieldwork anymore,” the narrator tells the old mappist when he finds him holed up in the wilds of the Dakotas. “That’s unfortunate,” the mappist replies, “because this information is what we need, you know. This shows history and how people fit the places they occupy. It’s about what gets erased and what comes to replace it. These maps reveal the foundations beneath the ephemera.”
This could be a description of the value of stories — for what are they, if not maps that show how we fit into places? Lopez’s maps do indeed reveal the foundations beneath the ephemera. A fearful symmetry, this thing Lopez, the consummate naturalist, has created.
DOSSIER | By STEPAN CHAPMAN Creative Arts Book Co. | 166 pages | $14 paperback