As if it weren’t enough that the cover of Susan Perabo‘s first collection of stories, Who I Was Supposed To Be, shows a dog apparently driving a car, or that the frontispiece features a quote from James Baldwin’s ”Sonny‘s Blues,“ the dust jacket reports that Perabo was the first woman to play NCAA baseball. Who wouldn’t want to read this book? Happily, what‘s in between is every bit as much fun as spring training.
In ”Thick as Thieves,“ a movie star receives a visit from his geriatric father, who turns out to have taken up cat burglary as his retirement pastime, a hobby he practices on the movie star’s wealthy, famous friends and neighbors, much to the star‘s chagrin. The story is at once broad and subtle, a thorough examination of father-son one-upsmanship that ends on an uneasy, yet satisfying note. In ”Reconstruction,“ a man feigns amnesia after a beating in an attempt to win back the wife who has left him for another man. In doing so, he makes new friends and wins back himself.
”Counting the Ways“ is about a working-class New Jersey couple who squander a $28,000 inheritance on one of Princess Di’s auctioned dresses, only to have the princess‘s death wreak havoc with their sentimental investment, when the spousal accusation ”It’s all about money!“ takes an absurd turn. Perabo often, though not always, uses ”cute“ situational devices like this in her stories, but there isn‘t a trace of mealy cleverness in her writing. She avoids the patness of situational comedy, using hilarious, base absurdities to get at ordinary things such as regret, or the very fine, hard-to-discern point at which a marriage ends.
Like Perabo’s book, British writer Dan Rhodes‘ first collection cuts to the heart of relationships through shameless device. Anthropology is a collection of 101 short stories, each 101 words in length. These wicked stories, many of which begin with ”My girlfriend . . . ,“ are all about relationships, either beginning, ending or under way, told from the all-too-seldom-seen perspective of a vulnerable man.
The collection works because each brief story cuts to the heart of some very specific male anxiety. In ”Beauty,“ a girlfriend keeps getting prettier, until her very appearance on the street causes car accidents. In ”Trick,“ the girlfriend tells the narrator she used to be a man, but had a sex change. When he swallows his shock and says he loves her anyway, she says she was only joking, and leaves him, calling him a ”gayboy.“ In ”Horse,“ the girlfriend has an imaginary horse, and the narrator keeps buying her ever more extravagant equestrian gifts (”She looks so incredible in jodhpurs“), until she demands a horse-trailer — and gets it.
In Rhodes’ hands, paranoid flashes become reality — e.g., ex-lovers really do stand on your front lawn and jeer at you, their new husbands laughing alongside them. These small stories make the minuscule fears they take as their subject matter loom awfully large, in a way that a full-sized short story could never do. Rhodes has devised a perfect format for skewering those fleeting, hallucinatory flights of perverse fantasy that all lovers, both male and female, are so desperately prone to entertaining despite themselves. Anyone who liked There‘s Something About Mary will love Rhodes’ book, and that‘s a strange thing to be able to say about a piece of conceptual art.
Given the relentless rigor of Rhodes’ structural conceit, it‘s nothing short of amazing that this book isn’t annoying and tedious — quite the contrary. He is an excellent and judicious craftsman, and the stories are all of equally high quality. One suspects that he didn‘t shy away from tossing out anything that didn’t quite hit a peak in his effort to reach the magic number of 101.
Quality control above and beyond the call of duty is also a prime characteristic of Stephen Spotte‘s second collection of short stories, Home Is the Sailor, Under the Sea, which also has a theme: Each of the stories has in some way to do with mermaids.
Spotte is a marine biologist at the University of Connecticut by day, and in his capacity as a scientist has written 80 scientific papers and eight nonfiction books. How many fiction writers working today have produced so many printed pages as this? Spotte is a prolific writer by any standard, and as a result, he’s very, very good. The assurance with which he handles the basic elements of his craft is unequivocal, and that confidence allows him to play delightfully with language free of the self-conscious strain seen in more deliberately experimental fiction.
Each story has a distinct voice and style, some lean, some verbose, some, God forbid, in dialect. Spotte‘s pursuit of mermaid subject matter takes him from academia to the Maori cannibals of New Zealand, and everywhere in between.
”Angel of Scalded Creek,“ set in the hills of West Virginia, begins:
Chastity was a pulchritudinous woman in that overly titted hillbilly style. Her upper arm flab was offset by the yellow hair set firm and airy as chicken wire, the eye shadow bulldozed into levees around liquid blue ponds, the lavender scent trailing like a bass just under the surface of nausea.
Now that is fun writing! ”Sedna the Sea Witch,“ the story of a man and a dog lost in Inuit territory, begins:
There being no medical clinic aboard an ice floe, he took up his hunting knife and cut off the gangrenous toes himself. Quimmiq, willing participant at all gustatory events, gulped them whole like Vienna sausages before settling expectantly on haunches made lordly by the act.
In all their variety, Spotte’s descriptions have a droll, New Gothic ring to them. Landscapes contain ”stands of white pine with branches made secund by the wind.“ And forests of ”hornwort . . . arise undulating out of the polysaprobic ooze.“ As delightful as this language is, it makes for a dense read at times, and eventually the mermaid device does wear thin through so much good service — there are 15 stories in this collection, where 10 or 12 would have done nicely. Still, Spotte‘s talent is so unique and charming that finishing Home Is the Sailor, Under the Sea merely leaves one eager to seek out a copy of his previous collection, promisingly titled An Optimist in Hell.
Do I detect a trend? Perabo, Rhodes and Spotte all demonstrate admirably that there is life in the old device yet, at least in the hands of a skilled practitioner. It’s a pleasure to see writers with so much confidence in themselves that they‘re willing to play fast and loose with format, to risk telling a serious joke for the sake of entertaining enlightenment. These story collections are laugh-out-loud funny, in addition to tickling the literary bone — suggesting that we may be in for a minirenaissance in truly comedic fiction. That’s a jolly prospect indeed for those of us who suffered silently through the earnest era of Raymond Carver and Anne Beatty, waiting for that happy day when we could sing, ”Ding-dong, the minimalist is dead!“