I read em, I review em. Anthologized short stories, that is.
From Calling the Wind:
A Summer Tragedy by Arna Bontemps: An elderly African-American couple sets out on a trip that doesn’t end well. This ominously gentle story unspools the struggles they’ve had with health, poverty, and racism, and the ways they’ve tried to stay strong and proud through it all. The ending is a warning about what happens when you (particularly white society and/or employers) thwart people (particularly Black and/or working people) too much for too long.
I realize that I’ve made this sound like a big downer. It is a big downer. Life is a big downer for some people who deserve better, and that’s the subject of the story.
Truant by Claude McKay: A married man who works in the dining car on a passenger train, and has always been reliable in that position, plays hooky one time and finds out that the consequences for this naughtiness are way more intense than the consequences for being a good employee. Turns out that, years before, our man left a placid island life to pursue a highbrow education. What role does the USA have for sophisticated black people? Kitchen work. Not that anything’s wrong with kitchen work, god knows, but he didn’t go to culinary school. He’s also bored with his marriage, in the way a closeted gay man is likely to be bored with his marriage, and he’s yearning to wander. But for all that he wants to walk out of his responsibilities, he also wants to cover the bases; making sure that the wife he plans to abandon is financially secure, etc. Any resemblance to McKay’s actual life is non-coincidental.
McKay may be best known as the author of the fist-pumpingly rousing poem/fight song If We Must Die, but his prose is well worth investigating; it’s plainspoken yet engaging. Having read this much, I’d like to real all the rest.
From The Outlaw Book of American Literature:
Jan and Jack by Neil Ortenberg: This short essay provides context for some of what we’re about to read; Jack Kerouac had a daughter, Jan, whom he barely ever met, but who became a fierce guardian of his literary estate.
Baby Driver by Jan Kerouac: Jan describes a hospital stay in which an orderly, recognizing her name, gives her a copy of On The Road, which is Jan’s first serious engagement with her absentee father’s work. She recognizes her own thought patterns in her father’s writing. She also hangs a bloodstained artifact of a medical lab test over her bed because it’s pretty. I liked this better than anything I’ve read by her father.
On The Road by Jack Kerouac: this excerpt is typical of Kerouac’s chest-thumping chatterboxing. I’ve got a blind spot for this guy’s appeal, even though I adore Burroughs and Ginsberg, but I can’t deny the powerful reactions I’ve seen from women I know who read Jack’s stuff. “He’s so sexist,” they say, but they don’t say it with the annoyance they’d bring to a lesser guy’s sexism; they say it with hushed awe.
In college, my roommate said that he wanted to spend a year or two “Jack Kerouac-ing around the country.” After he’d said this about a hundred times I asked him if he’d read any Kerouac. He hadn’t, but decided he ought to. After reading On The Road he said “Okay, I don’t want to do it the way he did. I want to do what I thought Jack Kerouac-ing was.” Years later, he joined the Peace Corps and roughed it in an Ecuadorian village, and I’d rather read his memoir, if he writes one, than any more Jack Kerouac. However, there is a rhapsodic passage in the excerpt under consideration in which Kerouac compares all his other friends to his man crush Dean Moriarty and finds them wanting. It reminds me a bit of both Burroughs and Ginsberg, which makes it my favorite bit of writing from Kerouac. I dunno who copied whose style here, or if there’s a Beat Q Gospel that shaped the 3 of them (okay, a preposterous notion, but a fun daydream/story seed), but either way, Kerouac writing like his cohorts is my favorite Kerouac.
Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson: Kerouac’s ex gives her side of the story, and it’s probably the best exploration of how a woman can size up a guy’s many shortcomings and still be enchanted by him that I’ve ever read.
Women write about Kerouac better than Kerouac wrote about anything.
From Best American Short Stories:
My Dead Brother Comes To America by Alexander Godin. A woman and her children, including the narrator, immigrate to the USA and meet her husband at Ellis Island after a separation of years. The narrator, recounting his childhood experience, conveys just how huge and mysterious things are when you’re a kid, without turning it into a Tim Burton production. There’s a terrible secret, a weird yet understandable betrayal, that creates fresh anguish for the newly reunited family. In frightening new surroundings, the trauma and loss of the old country follows the immigrants like a family member.
Resurrection of a Life by William Saroyan: This rhapsodically romanticized account of childhood is written with a Whitmanish self-aggrandizement and a plummy purple populism that suggests Saroyan was a shaping influence on Ray Bradbury’s writing. This also reminds me of J. M. Demattais’ more autobio comics (like Seekers into the Mystery). It’s so flamboyantly self-dramatizing that it’s like the male prose version of a shojo manga. Does a nice job of conveying that life’s beauties and evils coexist and make of life a beguiling tapestry. I relate to the ways that religious ceremony enriches the boy’s sense of awe, even as his mind rebels at the tenets of the faith. Still, this was too much like watching a middle-aged guy being grandstandingly emo for my tastes.
Also, fat shaming. It’s one of those stories where a fat person represents a grab bag of human failings.
From Dangerous Visions:
The Malley System by Miriam Allen deFord: A variety of creeps commit some truly horrible crimes, but it turns out that they’re reenacting their actual villainies in a virtual reality simulation. This is part of a therapy that’s designs to reduce recidivism in dangerous criminals. The side effects, though, undermine the entire endeavor. Does the mere fact that a treatment doesn’t work mean the prison system will stop using it? What do you think?
Ms. deFord worked in criminal justice and wrote legal fiction, so it’s no surprise that her story feels grounded in knowledge. Her prose in the first half, as she recounts the crimes, strains for hard-boiledness but sells the improvisational intensity of criminal acts of passion; the dialogue in the latter half, in which blasé penal professionals exposit the rationale, process, and shortcomings of this VR aversion therapy, are clear but bland. If only the same could be said for Ellison’s introduction, in which he whips himself into a popeyed frenzy about how just because she’s old, it doesn’t mean Ms. deFord couldn’t fist-fight you all into submission. But that’s the kind of hyperventilation Ellison fans pay their money for, innit?
A Toy For Juliette by Robert Bloch: In the future, there’s pretty much 2 people left: a nymphettish sexpot who likes to torture and murder people, and her time-traveling uncle who brings her torture devices and victims from throughout history. But remember, history has its own killers, isn’t that right, JACK THE RIPPER?
The airless BDSM nastiness of this tale (from the creator of Psycho) suits my worries about the Post-Trump, globally warmed future. But is the story any good? I’ve basically told you the whole tale, but I’m reminded of Howard Bloom’s wisecrack about The Fall of the House of Usher: anyone can retell it better than Poe told it. I don’t cosign that opinion, but I find it a useful rubric for evaluating the strength of a plot relative to the strength of its execution, and I’m inclined to say Bloch sells it with greater venomous zest than my capsule summary does.