Stories

1. Just because May is over doesn’t mean there’s any reason to let up on the short story habit. A setup like Short Story month is just meant to be a gateway drug, a way to to fire up the fever, and it’s up to you where you go from there. One Story, purveyor of some of the consistently best short fiction showing up in the mailbox every three weeks, has put together a list of their top ten short stories, plus a longlist of 26 more—“a list of ‘classic’ stories; stories we’d read again and again and still learn from every time.” Synopses of the top ten, and author photos, are up at Flavorwire.

2. And here’s another short stories story. My current bedtime reading is What There Is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell, a lovely evocation of a kinder, gentler era when writers and editors discussed children and literature and called out rosebushes by their proper names. Early on in the book, Welty writes to Maxwell about a collection just out from Farrar, Straus & Cudahy in December 1956, featuring three pieces of his. Entitled Stories—this was indeed a simpler time—it also showcased Jean Stafford, John Cheever and Daniel Fuchs. Library of America editor Christopher Carduff referred to it as “the literary equivalent of a group exhibition of recent work.”

Of Maxwell’s three stories in Stories, “The Trojan Women,” “What Every Boy Should Know” and “The French Scarecrow,” Welty is most interested in the latter two. She asks him several questions about their substance, always respectfully—the mixture of politeness and exuberance in these letters is the sweetest thing about them—with the wry disclaimer,

I made an exception of myself in my rule that nobody has any darn business asking a writer any more about a story than is therein provided.

Maxwell is equally courtly in his response:

The psychoanalysis in The French Scarecrow is kind of an elaborate joke—not that I think it is, but neither do I think it is the means—a means—for writers of fiction to convey meaning…. I meant it in this story as an equivalent to going to the dentist or the beauty parlor, and of course everything that that exceedingly childish man says on the couch is wrong—says about the other characters, I mean…. What I wanted to do with the story is to write about the periphery of vision.

As I read their pleasant back-and-forth about these stories of his, I suddenly realized that I in fact owned this collection, bought a few years ago on my annual pilgrimage to the Union Church Harvest Fair in Pocantico Hills, New York. This is the old Rockefeller estate, deep in hardcore Cheever country, which means there are always some great books to be scavenged: someone’s uncle Prescott moving into assisted living and getting rid of a pile of classic old paperbacks, crazy celebrity bios, all of mummy’s book club novels from the last five years, and everything priced to move.

I’d come home that afternoon with a smallish haul. Other than a two-bit copy of The Corrections, which I’d promised myself I’d read if I could find it for a buck or under, the rest was short story collections—Stories from the New Yorker 1950-1960 (with a handmade bookmark inside that said “To Uncle Jimmy, Happy Easter”—not uncle Prescott, but close), and the above-mentioned Stories. I remember picking it up specifically because while I knew Stafford, Cheever and Maxwell, I’d never heard of Daniel Fuchs. For a writer keeping such august company, that seemed semed strange.

Wikipedia says he was “an American screenwriter, fiction writer, and essayist.” Born on the Lower East side in 1909, he grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and eventually moved to Los Angeles to work in film. He had novels published by Black Sparrow Press, stories and essays in the New Yorker, and a couple of short fiction collections under his belt, one each for Brooklyn and Hollywood. But that’s about all I found, along with Irving Howe’s 1948 Commentary article about him called “Escape from Williamsburg: The Fate of Talent in America.” He sounds like something of a Jewish Writer of Mystery along the lines of Henry Roth.

Since when it comes to buying books my eyes are always bigger than—well, my eyes—I hadn’t cracked it since I plunked down that 50¢. The reward of being an impulsive book buyer, though, is being able to say, “Hey! I have that!” And a good thing, too, because the Maxwell stories, at least, are jewels. The way he manages to capture uncertainty and a certain kind of non-fatal disconnect in people’s lives, without chewing any scenery at all, is really marvelous. And nobody can knock you out with the passage of time in such restrained fashion. From “What Every Boy Should Know”:

Women left their lighted kitchens or put down their sewing in upstairs rooms and went to the front door and looked to see if the evening paper had come. Sometimes spring had come instead, and they smelled the sweet syringa in the next yard. Or the smell was of burning leaves. Sometimes they saw their breath in the icy air. A few minutes later they went tot he door and looked again. Left too long, the paper blew out into the yard, got rained on, was covered with snow.

And from “The French Scarecrow”:

She was nearly three months pregnant. Moon-faced, serenely happy, and slow of movement (when she had all her life been so quick about everything), she went about now, doing everything she had always done, but like somebody in a dream, a sleepwalker. The clock had been replaced by the calendar.

I’m with Welty, and think “What Every Boy Should Know” shines brightest of the three. It could almost be subtitled “What Every Girl Should Know,” it’s so vivid a portrait of male adolescence, frustration, righteousness, and grief. And I can’t remember when I read a story where masturbation was spoken of with such tact.

Those themes of Maxwell’s find their echoes over and over in What There Is to Say We Have Said—the way years fly by in a decades-long correspondence, and their loving gentility with each other. The stories are a wonderful supplement to the letters, and I’m feeling the need to go reread all the work of Welty’s I have. This does nothing to persuade me away from my indiscriminate book-buying; it’s nice to realize something I want to look at is sitting on my own shelves. The many short story collections I’ve picked up over the years, whether read or unread, have acquired the heft of a small literary reference library. Not all of this stuff is online, by a longshot. And if that gives me an excuse to tote armfuls of 50¢ books back from church bazaars and not worry about reading them right away, so be it.

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