Bergen, Guenther, Kellough, Mosley and Thammavongsa

Short Stories in October, November and December

Whether in a dedicated collection or a magazine, these stories capture a variety of reading moods.

This quarter, I returned to three familiar writers and also explored two new-to-me story writers.

David Bergen’s Here the Dark (2020)

There’s not a lot of dialogue and what remains unsaid also matters, like this bit in the novella, “Here the Dark”: “‘I won’t come back,’ Marcie said, and Lily believed her, and she wondered what that would be like, to not come back.” It’s Lily’s silence, her wondering, that matters more. But if Marcie hadn’t left, Lily wouldn’t have even been able to wonder. Sometimes this kind of wondering is what passes for action in these stories. If you’re not big on wondering, you might not be big on Bergen’s stories.

Never Too Late and Saved were in The Walrus, April was in Prairie Fire. Leo Fell was in Toronto Life. Vodka was in CBC Story Prize and pub’d in Saturday Night. Hungry was in Hobart and nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Contents: April in Snow Lake, How Can n Men Share a Bottle of Vodka?, Hungry, Never Too Late, Saved, Leo Fell, Man Lost, Here the Dark (novella)

Faye Guenther’s Swimmers in Winter (2020)

Arranged in three pairs, these stories revolve around love relationships. “At the start, every new lover is a story you choose to believe. A story about where you have been, where you’re going. A pack of cards shuffled, reshuffled, dealt again.” In the first pair, Magda and Florence move together, apart, and across time; a Rilke poem slips into and behind their story. “I’m an old woman whose world has grown several inches taller.” In the second pair, Eva and Claudia work together at a diner on Yonge Street in Toronto and, seven years later, they remain part of each other’s life, along with Jackie: “It felt like they were standing together in an apartment with all the furniture removed, empty and waiting.” (I never said they were happy love stories.) In the final pair, a shared character moves from a contemporary war to a post-apocalyptic conflict. She is “Not Carmen in the uniform, but Carmen as uniform, as soldier.” Then, generations later, she is an ancestor and her family members cope with the legacy of climate chaos.

Contents: Swimmers in Winter; Fight or Flight; Things to Remember; Captive Spaces; Opened Fire; Flood Lands

Kaie Kellough’s Dominoes at the Crossroads (2020)

One of the powerful themes that resurfaces in these stories is breath and air becoming life and breathlessness representing oppression. The same saxophone player might be playing his horn on a float in the Caribana parade or on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, inhabiting both the past and the present simultaneously. So, in one story: “Time, like fresh air, grows stale about one story below street level.” And, in another: “I remember her exact inflection, where she cut a word short, paused, and where her voice rose in pitch.” And, yet, another: “A knot tightened in my chest, like a stifled breath, and my body seemed to wrench toward the voices.

This slim collection, barely two hundred pages long, was stuffed with so many sticky notes by the time I finished reading, it’s like it was strung with bunting. Reading Dominoes at the Crossroads brought to mind works by Jordan AbelCecily NicholsonCatherine LerouxRawi Hage, and Kristjana Gunnars. It’s one of those books that I borrow, first, from the library, and then resolve to purchase so that it’s poised for rereading.

Contents: La question ordinaire et extraordinaire; Porcelain Nubians; Shooting the General; Dominoes at the Crossroads; Witness; Petit Marronage; We Free Kings; Navette; Capital; Ashes and Juju; Smoke that Thundered; Notes of a Hand

Walter Mosley’s An Awkward Black Man (2020)

More than one narrator is unhappy in love in Walter Mosley’s collection, sinking as Albert Roundhouse does in “Almost Alyce”, “under all that loving like a leaky rowboat in a summer storm”. This echoes my brief experience of his writing, not with his more famous mystery series starring Easy Rawlins (launched in 1990 with Devil in a Blue Dress) but with Leonid McGill (launched in 2009 with The Long Fall). Because I don’t remember anything about the mystery elements, I remember the relationships.

The stories are decorated with just enough sensory detail to lift them off the page, like the “hiss of tires racing on the wet streets outside” and “salt and butter hair…combed but only just”. New York City features prominently, from the subway entrance near Broadway and Houston to the falafel bar in Times Square and sunbathers on a lawn north of the Financial District. Some are about ordinary events (a middle-aged man quits his job selling insurance in “Starting Over”) and some focus on the extraordinary (like “Cut, Cut, Cut” which was wholly surprising between reading about a man who seeks to make a change in his psychotherapy protocol and a man who can’t bring himself to leave his apartment after Hurricane Laura strikes the city).

Many of them revolve around a man yearning for a love that “could not be erased from this world or her heart or mine”, as in “Local Hero”. Fuelled by dialogue and the kind of direct syntax that makes you feel like you’ve fallen straight into someone’s brain (and heart). Some, like “Reply to a Dead Man” are almost entirely dialogue; others, like “The Sin of Dreams” and “An Unlikely Series of Conversations” experiment with form and subdivide the story into smaller segments. Regardless, these stories read easily and quickly.

Mosley dedicates his collection to Toni Morrison “who raised the dialogue of blackness to the international platform that Malcolm X strove for”. Reading through the collection, I meet so many lonely and dispirited middle-aged and ageing men, that I flip back to check their names, unsure if I’m meeting some of them for the second time. But, even so, when I review the TOC after reading the final story, each story crystallizes for me, only with the title.

Contents: The Good News Is; Pet Fly; Almost Alyce; Starting Over; Leading from the Affair; Cut, Cut, Cut; Between Storms; The Black Woman in the Chinese Hat; Local Hero; Otis; Showdown on the Hudson; Breath; Reply to a Dead Man; The Letter; Haunted; The Sin of Dreams; An Unlikely Series of Conversations

Souvankham Thammavongsa’s How to Pronounce Knife (2020)

When poets create in a longer form, sometimes their prose is characterized by beauty and lyricism. In Souvankham Thammavongsa’s case, the quality that most remarkably translates from her poetry writing to her fiction writing is precision. (I’ve read two of her collections: both wonderful.) Sleek and exacting, her use of language will welcome readers who are not short fiction devotees as well as aficionados.

Contents: How to Pronounce Knife; Paris; Slingshot; Randy Travis; Mani Pedi; Chick-A-Chee!; The Universe Would Be So Cruel; Edge of the World; The School Bus Driver; You Are So Embarrassing; Ewwrrrkk; The Gas Station; A Far Distant Thing; Picking Worms

And you? Any short stories lately?