Don Lee is the longtime editor of the literary journal Ploughshares, which enjoys a reputation as one of the most prestigious outlets for contemporary fiction in the late 20th century. His short-story collection, Yellow, is offered up as a singular event — a lazy handful of long-in-the-works stories from a premier editor, rather than a literary “debut.” In this grasping age, there’s something gentlemanly and appealing about this unaggressive presentation.
In his role as an arbiter, Lee has contributed a great deal to our image of what a masterful short story should look like, and one would rightly expect his own personal oeuvre to be, a kind of exemplar for the short story. The interlinked stories collected in Yellow do just that. Lee is a writer as invented by an editor; he is a thoughtful craftsman, a distiller of image and incident, a tone poet. His form cleaves to all of the “rules” for successful contemporary fiction — plain language, slice-of-life plotting, characters lacking introspection — without being hackneyed, programmatic or obnoxious. His carefully modulated stories present engaging characters who are believable and complicated, situations that are unusual without being quirky.
A third-generation Korean-American, Lee plays the multicultural card to his advantage, but his is a light touch; some of Lee‘s Asian characters may have special agendas, but his fiction never does. Lee’s stories take place in and around the imaginary town of Rosarita Bay, “a rural sanctuary between San Francisco and Santa Cruz.” Lee‘s California is terribly suburban, a comfy, unchallenging retreat, a “nice” place — America as imagined by prosperity-seeking immigrants, perhaps — where people can be caught terribly off-guard by any kind of misfortune or travail. In the title story, Danny Kim grows up boxing at the YMCA and fights his way through a combative early life of college, marriage and job stress. Danny is an eloquent spokesman for the quiet tragedy of the repressed Middle American salaryman. The chip on his pinstriped shoulder is race, but could so clearly be anything else, as he finally does learn.
In “The Price of Eggs in China,” the narrator is caught running interference between his poet girlfriend and her longtime rival who suddenly appears in town. The battle between the two, whom the narrator dubs the “Oriental hair poets” for their matching long locks, displayed so dramatically in their author photos, is at times wonderfully satirical: “[Marcella’s] book, Speak to Desire, was taken seriously, compared to Marianne Moore and Emily Dickinson. Her poetry was highly erudite, usually beginning with mundane observations about birds or plant life, then slipping into long, abstract meditations on entropy and inertia, the Bible, evolution, and death, punctuated by the briefest mention of personal deprivations — anorexia, depression, abandonment.” While Caroline, the girlfriend, “wrote about masturbation and Marilyn Monroe, about tampons and moo goo gai pan, about alien babies and chickens possessed by the devil.” The rivalry takes on psychotic overtones as our narrator begins to question which “Oriental hair poet” is the real thing — as a woman and a writer — and which one is just a talentless, crazed stalker. Ultimately, the narrator‘s faith in love is what’s put to the test. The story is a wonderful discourse on the politics of literary identity, and in the end rewards us with a satisfying answer.
Bill Roorbach is also a noted member of the literary establishment — that world of journals and magazines and prizes. He teaches in the graduate writing program at Ohio State University, and his most recent collection, Big Bend, was partially written during a sojourn at the MacDowell Colony, and has won the Flannery O‘Connor Award. Such a pedigree could lead one to imagine an ivory-tower denizen who is preciously irrelevant, but nothing could be further from the truth: Roorbach is as raw and engaged a writer as you’ll ever read, with such an enormous capacity for empathy that he rivals James Baldwin in his ability to miraculously open up rivers of male sentiment. Like Baldwin‘s young men, Roorbach’s characters give the lie to the cliched image of men as stony, repressed mountains standing far, far apart from one another (and from women) with nothing but the cold wind whistling in between.
His stories are manly in the extreme; they are also likely to catch in the throat, or squeeze out a cathartic tear, and they all rest on a foundation of unabashed hope. But while Baldwin‘s universally accessible characters are often black, gay or religious, Roorbach writes about the same guys that Richard Ford writes about: jaded American white men, with or without women. While Ford’s gift is for nailing that silent, disconnected quality of much of male emotional communication, Roorbach has a knack for tapping into deep undercurrents and bringing them to the surface with the least amount of fanfare or fuss imaginable.
Roorbach‘s premises are simple: “Fog” and “Anthropology” both deal with boys in the throes of first loves. “Loneliness” tells of a man mistaken for a stalker by a pretty younger woman who happens to have entered the same establishments on the same evening. In “Fredonia,” a closed-down guy named George Skinner does nothing more exotic than get back in the saddle upon noticing that an attractive young woman is flirting with him, but the storytelling is so fresh and quick that you don’t know what‘s going to happen from one line to the next and eagerly press on to find out.
In the elegiac story “Blues Machine,” an aging guitarist known as Rockin’ Joe wakes up in his old friend‘s widow’s bed and spends the morning with her teenage son, Jesse, exploring the broken-down farmhouse where she lives. The old rocker (“He was a fool, a waste, a has-been, a nothing, a drunk, a clown, Grecian Formula, fuck”) and Jesse while the day away as the mom sleeps off her hangover, and finally bond heating well-water on the stove for each other‘s baths. There’s something very pure and biblical about these domestic ablutions: “He called, ‘Get ready, Jess,’ wrapped himself in a worn Barbie beach towel. Jesse undressed quickly, demure, as Joe stepped dripping into the hot kitchen to fetch the boiling new batches of water one vessel at a time . . . Jesse, child again, poured Mr. Bubble and climbed into the tub in his underpants. He splashed and goofed while Joe in his swinging towel filled pots, brought them to the stove.” Later, Joe begins to think about making some lasagna, and that one tiny imagining becomes the clear point at which a man decides not to say no to the comfort and warmth on offer. It‘s a haunting illustration of how fragile people’s life-changing decisions actually are, how something like a warm bath can alter everything, even for the most jaded he-male.
Bernard Cooper, whose memoir, Truth Serum, won an O. Henry Award and whose collection of essays, Maps to Anywhere, won the PENErnest Hemingway Award, is another writer capable of unexpectedly spurring the reader to great feats of sympathy. The stories in his new collection, Guess Again, center nominally on gay life in Los Angeles, but most of them are also about characters deeply engaged with the theme of family — an institution that includes lovers, parents and children on an equal footing.
In “Bit-O-Honey,” a gay hairdresser uses a Halloween costume as a ruse for getting a close look at his estranged father. In “Old Birds,” an architect deals with his senile father‘s intrusions on his new relationship, a juxtaposition that takes a sweeping, melancholic view of all relationships, be they beginning, ending or in progress. And while the story isn’t about AIDS — none of Cooper‘s stories are — its ever-present awareness provides the background music: “To want a man feels languorous, like waking up from a long nap, sensation slowly reclaiming my limbs. So many of my old lovers have died, and so many single men are symptomatic, that grief and desire have come to seem the same.”
In “What To Name the Baby,” a young woman undergoes the last stages of pregnancy while on a motor-home camping trip with her father and his gay lover. Like Roorbach’s Rockin‘ Joe, Laura is a character finding family in the strangest places. There’s a soap-operatic charm to the situation: Will the pregnant daughter and the gay lover find common ground by the end of this dramatic hour, or will they chew each other up fighting over their loved one‘s affection? Cooper succeeds in playing out this little domestic drama by making characters who are honest, human and generous — and this strange Winnebago crew begets its own version of Ozzie and Harriet perfection once its chemistry jells. It’s a seemingly slight story that stays with you by virtue of its common grace and casual wisdom, a domestic comedy informed by Cooper‘s acute, hard-won appreciation for the absolute values of life, and love.