Recently I’ve decided to read and review what are generally accepted as the best short story collections by living American writers. With publication of All Things All at Once (Norton, 365 pages), Lee K. Abbott, widely acknowledged as a “writers’ writer,” has seven collections of stories in print. His work has appeared in some of the most highly regarded literary journals. In addition, his stories have been featured in Best American Short Stories and have won O. Henry awards. This most recent collection features new stories, plus several previously published.
Now retired and living in New Mexico, Abbott made his living for years by teaching in the creative writing racket (Ohio State University). Most of his stories are anchored in the dreary genre of “domestic literary realism,” but Abbott is not afraid to challenge the conventions of that genre. His very style, highly literary and unique, his sui generis voice often produce fiction far superior to the usual trite tales of Mr. or Ms. Joe Blow average middle class American. For example, “Men of Rough Persuasion,” is about as far as you can get from the run-of-the-mill DLF that is published, alas, in massive globs of ennui all over the U.S. these days.
Here’s how that story begins: “Almost lost among the gabbies and goombahs, fakeloos and funnel-heads, Catamites and hypes, rajahs and ringers, and can openers and Visigoths in the twenty-plus chapters that are The Gates of Hell, a semi-sci-fi mystery with no little tally-ho at the end of it, is the skel Harbee Hakim Hazar—Triple H himself—an Ur-Dravidian whose opening line of dialogue, addressed to his image in a mirror, is this: ‘Behold, dips and dewheads, the baddest, blackest bindle-bopper to bo your peep.’” Of course, when a writer opens with a paragraph like that, lost and bewildered pin-brained readers are strewn all along the wayside behind the flow of his narrative. Abbott, apparently, doesn’t care; good for him.
In another of his experimental pieces, “As Fate Would Have It,” a musician/drummer, Noley Gilmore, is the main character. The story—a better title might be “Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda”—features a strange conglomerate of modals and tenses. Largely eschewing the indicative mood, this story tells itself to a you in phrases such as “she should be mightily charmed,” or “you should feel your ribs cracking open,” “you must be introduced,” and so on. Occasionally the narrative hops into the future perfect tense: “’She weeps,’ Freddy will have said to you.” Quite an innovation, but God knows exactly what the purpose is of telling a story in language like this. Maybe because it’s fun to be different.
Another line from this skewed tale: “On the outside speakers, your only album, Wet Places at Noon, has to be playing” [why does it have to?]. If we look in the front matter, under OTHER BOOKS BY LEE K. ABBOTT, we discover the collection, Wet Places at Noon. Furthermore, reading two more pages into “As Fate Would Have It,” we learn that the title of the very book we hold in our hands—All Things All at Once—is the most famous song written by drummer Noley Gilmore. So it turns out that Noley, a rather piddling figure in this book as a whole, is doing yeoman service to its author. Abbott’s titles (of collections and of individual stories), by the way, are lovely: The Heart Never Fits Its Wanting, Love Is the Crooked Thing, Dreams of Distant Lives. You give a story a title like that, however, and, sad to say, the content of the story often struggles mightily to live up to the sparkle and gleam of the title.
Then again, DLF at its worst is, largely, plotless, and many of Abbott’s best stories have plots. “The Talk Talked Between Worms” tells of how, in the summer of 1947, a man witnessed the crash of a UFO near Roswell, NM, and came upon dead alien bodies. That encounter resulted in his departing forever from the anodyne life he had led: he ends up in mental institutions for the rest of his life. His sad tale is told by a narrator who is his son. Narratives of fathers and sons loom large in this collection.
“Gravity” begins with an apparent kidnapping: “They grab her—Tanya, my fourteen-year-old daughter.” The tale ends up being not about a kidnapping at all, but about the disappearance of a wayward child, and the narrator/father’s realization that his Tanya is not who he thought she was. “One of Star Wars, One of Doom,” my favorite tale in the collection, relates the events of a school shooting, through the point of view of (1) the shooters themselves, two puerile high school boys with problems, and (2) a rather sad-sack teacher, Mr. DeWine, who blunders his way to where he has no business being and gets himself killed. Allowed some final words before being shot in the head, DeWine says, “I’d like to say something about my father.” More fathers and sons. As good as this story is—and it is very good—it suffers somewhat by what is a characteristic feature of the Abbott narrative: the overabundance of verbiage, which retards the action of the tale.
I can single out for praise several other stories in this long collection of twenty-five. The narrator of “Dreams of Distant Lives,” who suffers, as do many of Abbott’s narrators, from the desolation that divorce wreaks, has a highly poetic sensibility—another common feature of Abbott’s first-person narrators. Among the victims of the separation is his dreamlife, which is shattered into flinders and fluff. The narrator is thirty-nine years old (typical of the narrator/characters in this book, late thirties or forties), he belongs to a country club and plays golf (also typical). In fact, golf is so omnipresent in Lee Abbott’s stories that you wonder what the characters would do with themselves if the sport, somehow, fell into desuetude.
Like so many of Abbott’s stories, “Dreams of Distant Lives” contains highly poetic writing. At the end of the tale the bifurcation of the main character—consequent upon the divorce—appears to be resolved. “And so I came to myself—observed the man I am now walk forward to the man I was then and take him, as you take your children, into his arms. The one held the other—the future cradling the present—and the one who had been left, the one whose interior hooks and hasps and snaps had come undone, gave himself up utterly.” Nice writing. Abbott’s characters frequently are held together by interior hasps and snaps, and those things, unfortunately, have a way of coming undone.
A kind of companion piece of “Dreams of Distant Lives,” and another of the best stories in the collection, is “The Who, the What and the Why,” in which the narrator, Bobby Patterson, describes himself as “a voice.” What this means is that he makes his living recording commercials for ad agencies in Dallas, Phoenix, and L.A. But having a voice as the first-person narrator of the story is totally appropriate for Abbott, in that nearly all his narrators are characterized by their unusual voices. Or, better to say, by one unique voice, since they all speak in the literary voice of the author. More on this later.
Following the death of his child, Bobby Patterson splits apart into several strange selves, who begin burgling his house in the night. He is at least half aware that he himself is doing the burgling: “a part of me in the here and now watched a part of me in the then and there go limping slowly into the darkness.” Abbott’s male narrators—and his narrators are always males—resemble one another almost to a fault. They are standard-issue middle class; they have wives with double names (Ellen Kay, Mary Sue); they belong to country clubs and play golf; they have a certain gratuitous poetic sensibility. In “The Who, The What” all of the doppelgängers of the narrator (the burglars) are underclass types, who seldom feature as major characters in Abbott’s prose; nearly all his main heroes are middle class.
“It’s an unsettling feeling to be in- and outside yourself at the same time,” but, as in “Dreams of Distant Lives,” the narrator/hero of “The Who, The What” appears to have resolved the duality in the end. In another wonderful story, “The View of Me from Mars,” the narrator, a Methodist minister, is one more split personality, torn asunder by his adulterous affair. He muses on “the men I am, the public one amazed by his private self.” In a masterful way the story takes us right up to the point where the lie of long standing will be revealed—and the pretending of both husband and wife that nothing is wrong will end.
In the face of his wife’s ever more persistent questions, about where he was when, the narrator falls back on a lie involving his son Pudge. He has been that afternoon, ostensibly, at the golf course (golf again!) watching Pudge practice. The rest of the story involves the waiting for Pudge to come home, and “you are to imagine now how herky-jerky time moved in our house when Pudge drove up and came in and said howdy.” A subtle theme, really the main theme of this tale, is the way fathers betray their children, and how they must reveal their weakest selves to those children and hope for forgiveness.
So much for the strengths of Abbott’s writing. Now for a bit about the weaknesses. All Things All at Once comes complete with a plethora of blurbery, both on the back cover and in the front matter. Now, blurbs are, by their very nature, mostly mendacious. The writer’s agent or his publisher has solicited comments from other writers, the more famous the better. If you are writing a blurb under these circumstances, it is a given that you say positive things. A negative-blurbing blurber is a violator of the rules, and his negative blurb will never see the light of day. So, naturally, the blurbs for this book are all encomiums.
Of course, blurbs are often taken from book reviews, which, for establishment writers, are also almost totally positive. Why? I don’t know exactly why, but after a writer is in with the literary establishment, it is somehow not kosher to review his/her books critically. Despite all this game-playing, however, at times you can read between the lines of the blurbery to discover certain truths. At other times, the blurbers, whether consciously or subconsciously, hint at problems in the text.
When blurbers are searching for something good to say they often come up with “necessary.” As in the last blurb of the front matter: “What a magnificent and necessary collection.” The BS shows through in that sentence, whose author, wracking his brain for superlatives, ends his praising litany with the usual tripartite formula: “salutary, edifying, radiant.” Duh.
The first blurber in the front matter speaks of “the entertainment and vitality of Abbott’s prose,” of the way Abbott “grabs us with a moment that becomes sharply moving.” But in passing the same blurber mentions “narrative idiosyncrasies,” “loquacious banter,” the “eccentric and loose-limbed story.” Many of the blurbers mention “Abbott’s absolutely individual voice,” which “carries you irresistibly along.” It’s true, his voice is unique, while sometimes—at least for me—resistible. If fact, the voice can get aggravating. Another blurber: “Lee K. Abbott is a true American original, the owner of an unmistakable voice—at once funny, wise, loopy, and utterly unique.” That “loopy” in the middle of the wise and utterly unique stands out. On the back cover another mentions “loopy language.” Hmm, two readers who found loopiness.
What aggravates about this book? The eccentricity, the narrative idiosyncrasies, the loquacious banter. Most of the stories are solid DLF, in that the narrator is a screwed up middle-class male, living, most often in Deming, New Mexico, suffering through the most common travails of the DLF character: divorce, the loss of a child, etc. See the beginning of this review for examples of how Abbott, by way of his unique style and writing skills—and his willingness to liven up the action, as in stories of UFOs and school shootings—transcends the limits of DLF at its worst. This part of the review is how he does not.
There is a certain persistent narrative pattern, and it gets old fast. The narration is most frequently first-person, told by the troubled narrator himself. Herein lies another problem. Although the narrator is your standard bourgeois middle-class American player of golf, he speaks in a voice that is highly literary; he makes frequent allusions to writers and to events in world history that he, logically, would know nothing about. The first eight stories in this collection feature, essentially, the same first-person narrator, speaking in the same voice—that highly literate eccentric voice that almost certainly is the voice of the author himself. The problem could possibly be ironed out, if only the stories were written in the third-person, but most frequently Abbott wants his main heroes themselves telling the tale.
Sometimes it might also help if there were more dialogue in the story. “How Love Is Lived in Paradise,” the tale of a football coach, would be much improved if some of the characters—say, the women, Stacy and Mary Louise, or, say, the football players—were given words of their own to speak. As is, the story is mediated through the mind of a totally unbelievable character. No football coach who ever lived or ever will live speaks the literary language of this one, a man who “wondered how love is lived in paradise,” who marvels at “the clatter my hooks and hasps made breaking loose.” A football coach speaks of “got to get out there and show some physicality, some athleticism, got to stay within our ownselves, got to play like a team.” I’ve never yet met a football coach who openly wonders how love is lived in paradise. It would be interesting to see this story rewritten in the voice a real coach would use. It ain’t rocket science, you know. It’s just cracking heads and wracking ass.
Then there’s the thing of the names. The narrator of the final story, Hobey Don Baker, Jr., is typical. Sometimes it seems as if the names were chosen for comic effect. As they pile up, the names, like the so-alike narrators, begin to grate. The golfing buddies are Hub Somebody, or Poot Somebody, or Dub Somebody. The women in the narrator’s life—most often women, rather than one woman, since the narrator is usually divorced or about to be—most frequently have double names: Ellen Kay or Mary Sue, etc. My favorite narrator, the one who made me laugh out loud, is Onan Motley, of “When Our Dream World Finds Us, and Those Hard Times Are Gone” [another marvelous title], a Utah hillbilly—apparently named after the man who wastefully spilled his seed on the ground in the bible (Genesis 38:9) and invented the word ‘onanism.’
Loquacious banter. The eccentric and loose-limbed story. Loopiness. The biggest problem in Abbott’s style is the problem of excessive verbiage. In his worst stories, time and again, the telling of the tale gets in the way of the plot. Metaphors, similes, comparisons get in the way. My bracketed passages throughout the rest of this review indicate verbiage best omitted. Take his story titled “Martians.” Here we have two men playing golf. One of them, Newt Grider, believes in UFOs and is about to tell the other, our narrator Lamar Hoyt, how he plans to go off later that day and join the aliens. “’Boy, you don’t believe in nothing,’ I said; this was banter, [like that between Butch and Sundance]. He had just smacked a driver and was watching his ball soar off into one of those sunsets our New Mexico has a reputation for, [extreme and scary to the animal in us.]” The bracketed passages here. Butch and Sundance play no role in this story, have nothing to do with UFOs and aliens, so why take this brief flash of a detour into their lives? Or why bring them, blinking befuddled in the New Mexico sunlight, into a story that has nothing to do with them? Then again, whether New Mexico sunsets are extreme and scary “to the animal in us” is neither here nor there.
Newt tells Lamar that last night he spoke to the aliens. Now that’s INTERESTING. “’Shit,’ I said, ‘what’re you talking about?’ ‘I’m serious,’ he said.” At this point the reader is whooping, Yeah, tell me more! But we don’t go on right to the next question (‘What do they look like?’). Instead we get the retardation of this entirely superfluous paragraph: [“He [Newt] had the full-speed-ahead forward posture he’d get when we played cards and a full house would suddenly appear in his hands—earnest as a Baptist, humor a thing for lesser souls who believed in luck.”] Do we need cards here, full houses, earnest Baptists, some blather about what humor is and who believes in luck? No, give us the aliens!
Like Butch and Sundance, superfluous characters frequently intrude into the narrative. Take these Puritans in the story “X”: “I do not know now, twenty-five years later, what had ravaged my father’s self-control, what had seized him [as surely as devils are said to have clutched those ancient fugitive Puritans we descend from]. Leave the Puritans up in New England or somewhere, fighting the witch crazes. We don’t need them here.
Some stories, such as “Ninety Nine Nights on Mercury,” told by a narrator named Heath “Pokey” Howell, Jr., a banker, feature the phenomenon of metaphor overload. Some of the metaphors are good, some not so good, and others take us off into Butch and Sundance territory. In three pages of text we get (1) “Just smitten. By her dress, which was blue as heaven’s bottom and at least four times more sparkly than a poet’s idea of nighttime; and by her legs, which were long as hope itself. . .” (2) “I would say that Heath Howell was but a bystander, no smarter about this than is a dog about democracy” (3) “Behind us the door clicked and we, like butchers or other workaday folks with common business to conduct, stripped ourselves, eye to eye like sophomores about to fistfight” (4) “the light behind her as harsh as the word no, and she spoke, hers a sly smile to wonder about, hers a voice with as much rue in it as there is in mine when I tell a debtor the goddamn end is nigh.”
Okay. Heath (Pokey) works in a bank and plays golf at a country club. What does he know about “a poet’s idea of nighttime”? Then again, in the passage that brings butchers and sophomores into the narrative, which is it? Do we want butchers here for our metaphor, or sophomores? You can’t have both, and the story is better off with neither. Think of that image: butchers and sophomores in the same paragraph, stripping themselves naked and about to fistfight. Then again, another Butch and Sundance moment, do we want to leave the present action and veer off, if only briefly, into a scene featuring Pokey in the bank, calling in a debt? This sudden veering off into other worlds for a transient image is a feature of Abbott’s style. We could do with a lot less of this veering.
In the worst of Abbott’s stuff, the metaphors run amuck and the verbiage does massive damage to the narrative. The best example of this in the present collection is “The Final Proof of Fate and Circumstance.” As in so many other stories, this one features some excellent writing. The tale begins with the narrator’s father’s story of how, as a young man (on his way back from a golf tournament!), he slammed into a car pulled off the road and killed a man. Here’s the wonderful description of the father’s predicament immediately after the crash, when he gets out of his own overturned car: “His thoughts, an instant before airy and affirming, were full of soreness and ache; and, for a moment before he climbed back to the road, he watched one of his wheels spinning, on his face the twitches and lines real sorrow makes, that wheel, though useless, still going around and around, its hubcab scratched and dented.
“He was aware, he’d say every time he came to this part, of everything—splintered glass and ordinary night sounds and a stiffness deep in his back and a trouser leg torn at the knee and a fruitlike tenderness to his own cheek pulp.”
Really good stuff there, nice, as so often there is in Abbott’s prose. But this story is so overloaded with redundancies, so hyper-loquacious, so badly overwritten that I find myself crossing out huge glomps of prose as I read it. “The Final Proof of Fate and Circumstance” needs a good editor. Roughly a quarter of the words in the narrative could/should be cut. Here’s a typical example of the writing on p. 207.
“Then, about four o’clock, while the two of us stood against his cinder-block fence, watching a fivesome of country club ladies drag their carts up the fairway, [the sun hot enough to satisfy even William Wordsworth] Daddy announced he had a new story, one which [he’d fussed over in his brain a million times but one which, on account of this or that or another thing] he’d never told anyone. Not my momma Ellen. Not my uncle Matthew. Not his sisters, Faith and Caroline. [His hand held on my forearm, squeezing hard, and I could see by his eyes, which were watery and inflamed by something I now know as determination, and by his wrinkled, dark forehead and by his knotted neck muscles—by all these things, I knew this story would feature neither the fanciful nor the foreign, neither bird nor military mess-up, nor escapade, nor enterprise in melancholy; it would be, I suspected as he stared at me as though I were no more related to him than that brick or that rabbit-shaped cloud, about mystery, about the strange union of innocence and loss which sometimes passes for wisdom, and about the downward trend of human desires. There was to be a moral, too; and it was to be, like most morals, obvious and tragic.]
“This was to be, I should know, another death story, [this related to Valentine’s the way one flower—a jonquil, for instance—is related to another, like a morning glory, the differences between them apparent, certain, and important;] and the story was to feature a man named X, Daddy said; a man, I realized instantly, who was my father himself, [slipped loose of the story now by time and memory and fortunate circumstance].”
So please, Mr. Narrator, we feel like saying. Let the man tell his story. Forget the jonquils and the morning glories, leave out the abstract blather about “the strange union of innocence and loss which sometimes passes for wisdom,” leave it out. We want to hear your father’s story!
Just imagine: “The Final Proof of Fate and Circumstance” was accepted, apparently without demur, by the editors of The Georgia Review, where it was published. “How Love Is Lived in Paradise,” the one about the football coach, was published in Kenyon Review. Just imagine.
To end this review on a positive note, here is a potpourri of beautifully written passages, taken at random from stories all over the book:
“Yes, I was paying attention—to the gravel and grain of us, the string and the spit, the mud and melt we are. About why it is we have the hearts we do, and how it is they work. The world has already turned red and swirly at the edges, an arctic cold settling at their feet. The world is about to tilt, to wobble out of its groove, about to shrink. The world is cracking, a splintering you can hear in heaven. I took note of what is heard hereabouts at two in the morning: the wind, a wall clock, my mostly paid-for house taking its own pulse, the Fletcher’s three-legged shepherd in their onion field. A holier-than-thou sort with a walleye and hair in his ears, she felt like someone juggling one apple, he was smoking now, flicking his ashes in his cuff, his movements deliberate and precise, as if he had to explain to his shoulder and his elbow and his fingers what to do. About the magazine rack. About the swirl the universe made going down the drain at his feet, something inside tore free, and, like a boulder, went tumbling and crashing downward toward the bottom of me, Onan Motley, Oogie Pringle, that inventive Bowie fellow, a spade Marine named Philly Dog, Zookie Limmer, Dub Spedding, Pammy Jo, Becky Sue, Ellen Kay, Poot Tipton, Hobey Don Baker, Jr.”
–U.R. Bowie, author of “Gogol’s Head”