Flashlight Girls Run by Stephanie Dickinson

C__Data_Users_DefApps_AppData_INTERNETEXPLORER_Temp_Saved Images_content(1)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

The Surprising Place by Malinda McCollum

McCollum

Good book titles play with a reader’s expectations. A short story collection called The Surprising Place (University of Massachusetts Press, 197 pages) might seem to imply an emphasis on locale, a Winesburg, Ohio-ish evocation of a town and its inhabitants. And, in fact, this volume of stories takes its title from a former promotional slogan for Des Moines, Iowa, which provides the backdrop for most of the action. Still, what is “surprising” in Malinda McCollum’s excellent new book and winner of the Juniper Prize for fiction is not a matter of geography, in the prosaic sense. Rather, it concerns a different kind of space, a province of heart and mind. For lack of a better term, you could call it interiority. McCollum offers intensely observed portraits of her characters’ internal struggles which are often unsettling and full of contradiction.
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The Best American Short Stories, 2017

The Best American Short Stories, 2017 (Selected from U.S. and Canadian Magazines by Meg Wolitzer with Heidi Pitlor), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017, 303 pp.

Ten years ago the writer Elif Batuman wrote an article on two anthologies titled Best American Short Stories, for the years 2004 and 2005. Her amazing conclusion, well-reasoned and argued, was that many of the “best stories” in these collections were not very good stories. As she puts it, “Contemporary short stories contain virtually no reference to any interesting work being done in the field over the past twenty, fifty, or hundred years; instead, middle-class women keep struggling with kleptomania, deviant siblings keep going in and out of institutions, people continue to be upset by power outages and natural disasters, and rueful writerly types go on hesitating about things.” Domestic realism. Urggh. Continue reading

All Things All At Once, by Lee K. Abbott

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.
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Tenth of December by George Saunders

In a recent rant I wrote on the sad state of the contemporary American short story, I railed against what is sometimes known as ‘The New Yorker story,’ that all-too-common pedestrian thing called “domestic literary fiction.” Happily, there are always exceptions to egregious trends, and George Saunders (Tenth of December, Random House,  272 pages), who is a contributor to The New Yorker, is a big one. Exception, that is.

How is his fiction different from the normal, run-of-the-mill domestic stuff—the kind of fiction I can’t stand? A good place to begin would be with a comparison between his Tenth of December and another book of short stories recently published, The Refugees, by Viet Thanh Nguyen. I picked up Nguyen’s book with high expectations, having read his novel, The Sympathizer, which has great writing, wonderful sentences on every page.
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The New Yorker short stories

THE GREAT AMERICAN BOONDOGGLE
(The Sad State of the American Short Story)

The situation has been the same for years. Nothing ever seems to change and practically no one deems it necessary even to talk about it. Almost forty years ago a colleague at the university where I taught, a lifelong reader of The New Yorker and a person whose intelligence I respect, said to me, “I love The New Yorker, but I never read the fiction. ‘The New Yorker story’ does not appeal to me.” In a visit to my general practitioner a month ago, the doctor, an avid reader of classical literary fiction—the canonical literary works of the world—remarked, “I love the articles in The New Yorker, but I never read the fiction. Most of it is a total bore.” Over a period of forty years how many other intelligent readers of fiction have said the same thing? Repeatedly. Why is nobody listening? Continue reading

The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind by Billy O’Callaghan

thingswelose What to say about Things we Lose (New Island Press, 228 pages) a book that stunned me, time and again. I might call Billy O’Callaghan a “writer’s writer,” if that term did not immediately consign a writer to obscurity. (In the USA, Richard Yates is often referred to as a “writer’s writer,” and until the movie Revolutionary Road, few people, apart from those who taught in MFA programs, knew his name.)

I would like to invent a new way to describe what I think Billy O’Callaghan will leave as his literary legacy. I would call him a “human’s human” (with a pen) or an “explorer’s explorer” of our dreams. I would call him a poet of the spirit. Or, maybe, to use a more prosaic analogy, he is a housekeeper who assiduously dusts the cluttered rooms we keep closed, even from our conscious minds. Continue reading