When does a presence become a force to be reckoned with? A few years ago, I became aware of Stephanie Dickinson because her name often appeared in literary magazines. She was a prolific writer, popping up in many places. I’d read a few of her flash pieces, which were strong in imagery, but I’d never read an entire book of her work until now. Her latest collection of short stories, Flashlight Girls Run (New Meridian, 254 pages), has made me sit up and pay attention.
These eleven stories depict protagonists in various stages of fight or flight. In “The Village of Butterflies,” an elderly Vietnamese woman transplanted to New Orleans tries to survive the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina while perched on the roof of a van. In “The Muffled Hoot of an Owl,” a disabled war veteran comes home and tries to reimagine a new life in a familiar setting in which she is forever altered, physically and mentally. In “Hot Springs,” a young woman flees gang violence in Mexico and is pursued to a spooky, empty Arkansas resort by an apprentice assassin with a pet mouse. The closing story, “The Downtowner,” is a pitch-perfect dispassionate account of a harrowing sexual assault. These abbreviated summaries of a few stories are, of course, incomplete, but they offer a glimpse of the author’s preoccupations.
Most of the protagonists are female, across a broad palette of identities: Chicana, Lakota, white, African-American, Vietnamese. They are often working class. In recent years, the question of cultural appropriation has received considerable attention but Dickinson (who appears on the back cover to be a white woman) accepts the challenge and, in my estimation, succeeds in offering nuanced portraits. Identity politics do indeed figure in these stories (as well as sexual politics and environmental issues) but these questions are individualized.
Dickinson displays a gift for dramatizing the contrast between the outer world, which is variously harsh or hum-drum, and the inner world of her characters’ perceptions, which is marked by hope and desire and less constrained by rules. In “Jesusita,” a young wife takes care of her grievously-injured husband: “he’s listening through the window to the orchard and the wormy apples growing and squeaking on their stems as they ripen. Sometimes she sits beside him and listens too.” Or: “Vic calls to her from inside his mind and she hurries into the farmhouse.” One of the strongest stories in the volume, “JadeDragon_77,” is narrated by Jana, a teenager with muscular dystrophy. She gets caught in a blizzard with a handsome man and, as she tries to make her way to his cabin in her wheelchair, kicking at snow, she recalls an earlier time, before she was struck down by illness, when she attended a tap-dance class taught by a man name Mr. Sells:
The snow burns, and in the wind, Mrs. Sells’s doilies and salt-and-pepper shakers tumble. I can’t see. I don’t know if we’re moving, but I’m trying to help. My eyes tear and my lashes freeze together. Mr. Sells keeps calling from inside the wind. Gay and very nice, he’s in his tap shoes on the hardwood floor, which is buffed to a blonde gloss. The snow hisses, “Slide leg forward, drop heel.”
Younger Jana longed to dance, today’s Jana longs for the embrace of this handsome man, but how will she get through the blizzard which has become her life? Dickinson captures the simultaneity of experience, how past and present, interior and exterior, converge and coalesce and create a moment.
In “Between the Cold Hearts and the Blue Dudes,” the narration takes a more distanced approach. Here a character named Jamer makes his way around a New Orleans neighborhood:
He doesn’t recognize the neighborhood, and then he does. Green, violet, rose-and-white shotgun houses with black waterlines dividing them. There used to be a Winn-Dixie right there in that weed lot that would lock its electronic doors at 9:00 p.m., and the cashiers and meat wrappers would take off their white coats and aprons, and melt into the night. One night, an ex-con named Drano, who worked in the meat department with the rib eyes and T-bones, stabbed his cashier girlfriend, Poinsettia. She bled to death behind the checkout counter. There was no article in the Times-Picayune, just HELP WANTED taped to the glass entrance door. Summer nights, Jamer’s father bought sweet corn there. Two ears for a dollar. Jamer loved husking, touching all that corn silk. He made corncob dolls with green wilderness hair. He called one of them Poinsettia. He never told his father about that; his daddy thought he was soft enough.
This could be published as a piece of stand-alone flash fiction, as an artful snapshot of someone finding his own version of masculinity. In the context of a larger story, it provides insights into the character’s later actions. But in both examples—the “up close” narration for Jana or the distanced approach for Jamer—the writer demonstrates authority, an ability to bring forth an individual. The sheer variety of individuals who populate these pages in various settings (the Dakotas, Iowa, Louisiana, Wyoming and elsewhere) displays an impressive breadth of imagination. A story called “The Papoose House” is somewhat sprawling and feels more like a novel excerpt, but overall the writing is tight and assured.
Reading this collection, I was reminded of the writer Stephen Dixon, not because he and Dickinson share a similar style but, perhaps, a comparable situation. A generation ago, in the pre-Internet age, Dixon was another prolific writer whose work appeared in many literary magazines, some of them obscure. There was a time when it seemed Dixon was a mainstay in the Table of Contents. Critical recognition didn’t catch up to him, however, till he was in his fifties, with many books under his belt.
Stephanie Dickinson may be poised for a similar belated reception. Of course, my “discovery” of her is nothing of the kind. Magazine editors have been appreciating her for years. I am simply catching up. With a book like Flashlight Girls Run, she appears to be a force to be reckoned with, a gifted writer who deserves greater attention.
–Charles Holdefer, author of Dick Cheney in Shorts, 2017