Author of AGAINST A DARKENING SKY, THE EMPTY ROOM, OUR DAILY BREAD, and others. Find out more at www.LaurenBDavis.com. I read as if my sanity depended upon it.. . . oh, wait, it does! Snort.
I tell my students they need to get their characters up a creek and then take away the paddle, add some rapids and a hurricane or two. In other words, for fiction to work, people have to have problems.
And here's a fine collection of them. There are 17 stories here, originally published in the Paris Review between 1974 and 2004.
All the stories are good, some, are excellent. One of the superb ones is Annie Proulx's The Wamsutter Wolf. Here Buddy, a young man wandering aimlessly through life moves into a trailer park next to a drunken pack of misfits led by the bully who tortured him in school. The stories are dark for the most part, and none more so than Malinda McCollum's The Fifth Wall, and its junkie mother.
One of the surprises for me was Elizabeth Gilbert's The Famous Torn and Restored Lit Cigarette Trick. Clever, nearly farcical, the ending is nonetheless deeply touching - an indication of her talent.
My favorite was Denis Johnson's Train Dreams, which drew me in as few short stories ever have and left me feeling as though I'd read an entire novel in under sixty pages. The longest story in the collection, and perhaps more rightly called a novella, it was stunningly crafted, beautifully imagined and profoundly moving.
The last story, by Charlie Smith, is perhaps the weakest. The characters take a river trip. They have a paddle, but they also have some deep psychoses, a gun and some very dark fantasies. It felt a wee bit contrived and self-conscious.
Other stories are by Charles Baxter, Joanna Scott, Mary Robison, Rick Bass and Norman Rush. All are good. This is both a solid addition to any library, and a master class for writers.