Someone to Watch Over Me: Stories by Richard Bausch

In Someone to Watch Over Me (Harper Perennial, 224 pages), with stories about older men with younger women, a woman recovering from a dysfunctional relationship who hooks up with a horrible golfer who persuades himself he is good, a man with low self-esteem who stumbles out of a bar drunk one morning to save a busload of children, a man who wins the lottery only to face the final anomie of life as loss, Richard Bausch takes somewhat downtrodden and mundane middle-to-lower class characters and reveals them in their secret glory. He has a way of fully seizing an everyday situation and revealing to us its depths, sometimes switching character point of view within the same story. The stories have the opposite effect of Continue reading

Two or Three Things I Know for Sure by Dorothy Allison

I believe Ernest Hemmingway said “All you have to do to be a writer is write one honest sentence.” Well by that definition, and although this slim book with its refrains of the title in different contexts reads almost like a performance piece between two covers–it is in fact reconstructed from texts used in performances used to publicize 1993’s Bastard Out of Carolina–Dorothy Allison is certainly a writer. And yet curiously, and at times almost bewitchingly, Allison plays with and cozies up to the notion of story in its ability not just to tell the truth but to conceal it–here, in the simplest possible language, and using her own experiences as a child abuse victim by her stepfather in the American South, she psychoanalyzes the nature of story and story-telling as a means of healing the ego and reinventing the self. The book is integrated with Continue reading

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: Stories by David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace is clearly an accomplished and, at times, brilliant writer. If it were only a matter of judging his playfulness, innovation, and enthusiasm-sheer energy-it would be hard to imagine him scoring higher. For example, one of his conceits, Datum Centurio, features a hard copy version of a future (2096) dictionary which defines “date.” In Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (Little, Brown and Company, 288 pages) the innovative “story” mimics the complete typographical layout of a real dictionary and notes to the effect that with “compatible hardware” (e.g., a neural plug) we could get the entire “pentasensory” (i.e., virtual reality) illustrative support. The dictionary definition traces the ancestral origins of date to earlier in the century (i.e., our time) when the term was Continue reading

The Law of Averages: New and Selected Stories by Frederick Barthelme

Although seemingly simply written, these are some of the most sophisticated stories I have ever read. Barthelme is so even tempered, so subtly loving, and so good at fixing upon key details that bring a scene to life that his work is both a joy to read and a reward to study. His subject, the “New South,” with its strip malls and pierced adolescents, is much less differentiated than Faulkner’s, and much less expansive than Hemingway’s grandiose global stage of writerly operations. Yet Barthelme’s prose is more than up to Continue reading

Because They Wanted to: Stories by Mary Gaitskill

Because They Wanted to (Scribner, 256 pages).  Mary Gaitskill is the real thing, as Hem said about F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Coke says about itself. She is one of those writers you feel writes in black blood, and only tells lies to clarify the truth. Like Bukowski, she is attracted to the ugly truth far more than representation of the beautiful or the good. Her detailed descriptions of female pixies and the inexorable pivots on which their love lives slip into what would be despair if they were not so inured to pain from its constant presence, her often seamless use of flashbacks in narrators or protagonists chaotically attracted Continue reading

Chinese Checkers: Three Fictions by Mario Bellatin. Translated by Cooper Renner.

Chinese Checkers: Three Fictions (Ravenna Press, 139 pages). In “Hero Dogs: A Look at the Future of Latin America Envisioned as an Immobile Man and His 30 Belgian Malinois Shepherds” (2000), the collection’s second fiction, Bellatin reduces the theme of atrophied human nature and skewed relationships, explored in “Chinese Checkers,” to absurdity.  In a nearly affectless prose unrelieved by symbol, metaphor, or ornament, the third-person narrator details the life of a paralytic recluse, a Beckettian protagonist of indeterminate age, whose single purpose is the care and training of thirty dogs “able to kill anyone with a single bite to the jugular.”  Despite his immobility, the unnamed Continue reading

The Secret Goldfish: Stories by David Means

This inventive collection of stories, The Secret Goldfish (Fourth Estate, 224 pages), revolves around the off-kilter — either something happens that cannot be explained or the characters are bewildered about how they came to be where they are. In the title story, a goldfish survives for nine years despite the odds in a murky, nearly airless tank while a marriage disintegrates. “Blown From the Bridge” tells of the last moments a young man shares with his lover before she and her car are blown off the Mackinac bridge, her fate sealed by a mysterious dedication to her father. The main character of “Lightning Man” cannot escape a lifetime of lightning strikes, but he continues anyway through his ruined and Continue reading

Willful Creatures: Stories by Aimee Bender

Aimee Bender’s stories are the contemporary descendants of those of the Brothers Grimm, with their surrealism laid on top of human desire and need. In both her previous collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, and this newest one, Willful Creatures (Doubleday, 224 pages), her fiction adopts the tone of fairytales through the straightforward storytelling of the bizarre. Instead of a sausage growing on the end of a nose, Bender gives us potato children and a captive miniature man. Instead of a wicked stepmother, she conjures a collective group of predatory teenage girls. The “willful creatures” of the Continue reading

Salvation and Other Disasters by Josip Novakovich

[Review adapted from an author introduction read at Dactyl Foundation October 2002 ] Despite the fact that Novakovich may write about what he knows — immigrant life or life in Croatia —  these stories not the  so-called “slice of life fiction” that is considered the epitome of realism these days. They are concerned with an artfulness in a way that much of contemporary fiction is not. They may remind you of myths. I want to make a comparison to one myth in particular, Oedipus Rex, not in terms of content but in terms of plot structure.

It has to do with the way he uses chance and coincidence. It’s something he does in many stories in his new collection, Salvation and Other Disasters, (Graywolf Press, 204 pages), Continue reading