I'm thankful for short stories. Well, some of them. Allow me to elaborate:
From Calling the Wind:
The Only Man on Liberty Street by William Melvin Kelley: Liberty Street's only residents are African-American women and their light-skinned children. You picking up what I'm putting down? So one day, one of the well-to-do white men who are regular visitors to Liberty street comes to stay. The story is told from the perspective of his mixed-race daughter, who cherishes her father and is grateful for the joy he brings to her mother.
But the man's wife stalks the house from the comfort of a coach, and threatens to sic the Klan on her husband's new family if he doesn't come back to her. The man is popular, successful, non-racist, and a crack shot, but as the town's plentiful supply of cruel racist dirtbags turns up the pressure, he grudgingly admits: "I can't shoot everyone."
This tale shows how cultural racism works on several levels, pressuring everyone, even anti-racist mavericks, to toe the line. When society is in the grip of racism, intersectional fault lines turn white women against black women, and no one can safely resist. The titular "only man" is confident that he can protect himself, but he can't be sure that he can protect the woman and daughter he loves.
Kelley's prose draws upon melodramatic phrasings, but the story resists melodramatic endings in place of something quiet, realistic, and mournful. Our hero returns to the white wife he despises, in order to save his true, forbidden, family.
Come Out The Wilderness by James Baldwin: A young country-mouse African-American woman moves to the Big City and falls into an unhealthy relationship with an irresistible white boy. She has a pretty good job as a secretary, and may soon be working for an African-American man who shares her country background and has a definite romantic interest in her. She doesn't find this alluringly romantic; it's straight up sexual harassment, no matter how well intentioned. But her home life is an unsettling agony; she craves her wayward boyfriend, but knows she'll have to give him up. The story ends with a devastating final blow, the ultimate reason that their relationship is untenable.
Baldwin is subtle, with keener insight into people's mixed motives than just about any writer I've ever engaged. For example:
"Through him, she got over feeling that she was black and unattractive, and as soon as this happened, she was able to leave him."
That's a whole story in a sentence. That's James Baldwin.
From The Outlaw Bible of American Literature:
To Do the Right Thing by Lou Reed: The groundbreaking rocker refuses to perform as a musician while working as a reporter in Prague (on a trip to interview Vaclav Havel), and while his political travel writing isn't as rich and compelling as the kind of stuff you get in the New Yorker, he offers some intriguing observations. A Jewish graveyard too small to accommodate all the bodies, the gravestones piled up; accounts of destroying Russian tanks by sneaking up and vandalizing their exposed gas tanks; kids playing songs where once music had been forbidden.
Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain: excerpts from the legendary and compulsively readable oral history of punk music. Iggy Pop explains how he learned from/appropriated blues stylings to develop his own brand of expressive musical articulation. The MC5 has a really bad time dealing with stupidly militant, thuggish fans who can't distinguish between intense entertainment and invocations to theory-deficient praxis. Patti Smith confronts God in concert, and God retorts, leading, one band member testifies, to Smith's re-Christianization. Sid and Nancy try to haggle with heroin dealers. I need to get my own copy of the whole book, because it's gold. The editors' book The Other Hollywood, about the porn movie business, is a similar blend of the amusing and distressing.
The Vulture by Gil-Scott Heron: Heron's mother wanted him to go to school and stop using drugs, so she was a terrible mom. To Heron's credit, he is a more sensitive describer of his home life than he is a commentator upon it, and it's possible to find a more compassionate view of his mother in the details he relates than in his whining about her whining. On the other hand, his description of the defiant masochism of Mets fans demonstrates the magic Heron could conjure. Check out the song Whitey's on the Moon for a glimpse of just how great he could be.
Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood by Eric Burdon: Burdon used to hang out with Steve McQueen, who was a clever gear/pothead and a dangerous driver. I don't know what it says about me that I'm more entertained by condescending anecdotes about punks and porn stars than worshipful anecdotes about hotdoggers eluding the highway patrol.
The Old, Weird America by Greil Marcus: Marcus describes a free-flowing (drunken) musical session between Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, and finds the magic where some of us would only see foggy fumbling.
From Dangerous Visions:
Eutopia by Poul Anderson: An alternate universe where Apollonian Hellenism shaped North American culture sends a young anthropologist to another alternate world where Nordic paganism integrated with First World peoples to create a more tribal, forested North America that the one we know. Our anthropological hero is in danger, for a reason that only becomes apparent at the end. It's a ripping yarn, but beyond thrilling pursuit, the story is interested in a sympathetic consideration of the virtues and vices of different cultural approaches to life. Anderson concludes the story with that beloved science fiction trope, the know-it-all speechifying character who's a standin for the author, hectoring us about what's true and stuff.
Spoiler warning: the guy's in trouble because he's gay, and hit on a guy, not realizing that there are some cultures so benighted that they regard such actions as taboo. Anderson swipes at homophobia with real daring for the 60s. Good man.
Incident in Moderan by David R. Bunch: In a world where militant military cyborgs fight gamelike, but fully lethal, wars, a happily hating soldier meets a sniveling, fully organic civilian, who yearns for at least a taste of peace and mercy. The story runs the risk of being an on-the-nose satire of militarism, but Bunch, who was a civilian employee of the US Military, writes with such brightly burning poetic intensity that the warrior's worldview is too compelling to dismiss. Furthermore, the fact that the soldiers willfully replace almost every part of themselves with machinery, and cheerfully reduce their range of interests and emotions to warmongering sports rivalry, remains a challenge to the posthuman nerds out there who dream of replacing our complex organic minds and bodies with manufactured parts. The risk of reducing ourselves as drastically as these warriors have done is one of many things to dread about such a future.
The Escaping by David R. Bunch: This time Bunch creates a vision of a character who's like a more embodied and less free version of Italo Calvino's Qfwfq, an inhabitant of a world built on words, who can shift reality by crafting the right narrative. The character is in chains, but dreams and speaks into being a tableau of escape. The story reminds me of my own pre-dreaming visions just before sleep, but also of idiosyncratic BDSM fantasies. So far Bunch and Dick have provided my favorite contributions to this anthology, and I already knew Dick was great. Why have I never heard of Bunch before? He's a visionary who's in complete command of his instrument.
From Best American Short Stories:
Miami-New York by Marsha Gellhorn: an extremely dissatisfied married woman and a lusty soldier sit next to each other on an overnight flight. Things happen.
Gellhorn delves into the minds of her two characters, and unfolds the conflicting impulses and ruminations that direct and redirect their moment-to-moment choices. It's a dazzling demonstration of erotic tension, and the tripwires that can prevent moments of steamy connection from becoming anything more valuable.
The Second Tree From the Corner by E. B. White: Perhaps in the 40s, the notion that mentally and emotionally troubled people are enjoying a more authentic experience of life than normies wasn't such a dangerous cliche. I do love one passage in this story, though:
"...what he wanted was at once great and microscopic, and... although it borrowed from the nature of large deeds and of youthful love and of old songs and of early intimations, it was not any one of these things..."
The Farmer's Children by Elizabeth Bishop: On an old-fashioned farm, the locks are broken on a barn full of valuable equipment, so on an icy Winter's night two boys are sent to sleep in the barn and guard the gear. You can see where this babes-in-the-woods story is going, and it goes there, but Bishop, a legendary poet, describes the territory and the season with rhapsodic reverence for the beauty of American land. If literary Americana appeals to you, give Bishop a try.
Death of a Favorite by J. F. Powers: A sardonic cat tells us about the power struggles in a rectory. A sweet old priest runs the place and loves the cat, but his likely replacement is a sadist with no evident devotion to God, humanity, or felines. It's a claws-out satire on the lack of holiness, or even decency, among some power seekers in the religion business. Did my year of working in a box factory alongside seminary students give me any reason to question this cynical view? No, it did not.
Anyway, don't fret; although, as the title suggests, the poor cat is killed by the villainous scheming of a pair of godless priests, all ends well. Remember, cats have 9 lives, and in a story where a cat is more articulate than a priest, other miracles are possible.