Sarabande Books awards the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. I previously favorably reviewed the short story collection of a recipient of this prize: Laura Kasischke. David Crouse was the 2007 award recipient for his short story collection “The Man Back There”. The latter is the initial story in the collection. The plot is simple. A middle aged divorcee punches his girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend because he had insulted her a few months before. He wants to let it go, she wants the attention. The story lowered my expectations for the collection. “Castle on the Hill” was a little more compelling. A male divorcee cannot fill his empty life as a dog-catcher and crashes his ex-wife’s new family’s Thanksgiving. It is a capable story, but not in an award-winning class.
The third story, and some thereafter, are the charm. All the stories in this anthology are psychological studies of a certain segment of the U.S. male species. Some are quite disturbing.
“Show and Tell” is unexpectedly the best. If you are drawn into a story by the first line, this is not the story for you. The story’s is misleadingly the give away. The first line is simply “The Decapitated Android”. It is a subtitle for each of the broken toys that a boy appropriates from another boy that he plays with. The actual first line is “Someone has twisted off its head.” Young boys do violence to toys and to each other. The lines between a phase and juvenile delinquency, between stable and unstable families, are blurred. You worry about this boy’s mind and future.
“Posterity” concerns a career politician who at the other end of life’s spectrum has lost his mental faculties. He believes that running on auto-pilot, the instinctive practiced glibness of the profession, will see him through. It doesn’t.
I think of “The Forgotten Kingdom” as a sequel to “Show and Tell”. The boy is a young man who avoided juvenile delinquency. He is a young man whose job at a closing software game company is to dispense phone clues to those challenged to complete its video games. The video game is a metaphor for the unskilled who lead empty lives and have no clue how to meet life’s challenges.
In “What We Own” the boys are initially not so lucky. They do not avoid juvenile delinquency. There is family dysfunction but it may not be the cause. As in “The Observable Universe” communication is difficult when there is mental or physical illness. I was emotionally drawn to the father in “What We Own”. Illness is not always victim-less. It is a compelling story.
“Dear” leaves you guessing who are the victims of a philandering professor. The last story “Torture Me” is about secret lives of responsible people. A wife discovers her husband’s dark sexual interest in a video that he leaves on his desk under a few papers. He is ambivalent about whether he is S or M. It is unclear whether his interest is mere desire or self-destruction of his quiet responsible life? For those who live in NYC, Anthony Weiner maybe one case study.
On the whole, I agree with Mary Gaitskill who selected these stories. “They made me feel”.