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Like Diamonds on Display

By (January 1, 2009) No Comment

The Red Convertible:
Selected and New Stories 1978-2008

By Louise Erdrich
Harper, 2008

There is something I keep wanting to say about reading short stories. I am doing it now, because I many never have another occasion. Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.
–Mavis Gallant

Let’s hear it for short stories collections! Clap fast and loudly … we might not be seeing them for a while. In these uncertain economic times, publishers will probably table short story collections for the novels of would-be Danielle Steeles or Stephen Kings – the sure-things, the moneymakers. But what if we promise to buy those collections, if they promise to give us more bang for our buck? What if writers and editors put more time into assembling them? Instead of an anemic preface that sounds more like an acknowledgment, what if the collection included a revealing preface in which the author discusses her literary vision, or how she perceives the voices she’s so long conjured? And instead of a mindlessly chronological arrangement, what if the stories were displayed like diamonds in jewelry store – set against a dramatic backdrop of midnight blue and under diminutive lights that catch every facet? If only such care had been taken by Louise Erdrich in The Red Convertible, bruited to be her first-ever collection of stories in a thirty-year career.

Before reading the first page of The Red Convertible, I checked and double-checked whether it was true that in three decades of writing, Louise Erdrich had never before released a collection of short stories. How could this be? I could’ve sworn that Love Medicine was a story collection. And what about Tracks and The Beet Queen? All these are listed on the inside cover of Red Convertible as novels. In my expanded Harper Perennial edition of Love Medicine, they are listed as fiction. I dug deeper, into my New Yorker archives in search of reviews. There! In the January 7, 1985 edition, a “Briefly Noted” review of Love Medicine: “ ‘A novel,’ the title page promises, but the fourteen chapter that follow deliver, instead, fourteen independent, if interlocking short stories.” More digging. In the January 12, 1987 “Briefly Noted” review of The Beet Queen:

Described on the dust jacket as “A Novel by the Author of Love Medicine,” and subdivided into four parts and sixteen chapters, this is in fact a collection of fragments that do not add up to a novel, or even a full house of short stories.

So my instincts were not amiss. I went on to do some calculations: Of the thirty-six stories in this collection, twenty-five are reprints from magazine publications and/or “stories” from Love Medicine, The Beet Queen, and Tracks. Stories such as “The Bingo Van,” “The Painted Drum,” and Tales of Burning Love” are, you guessed it, excerpts from the novels The Bingo Palace, The Painted Drum, and Tales of Burning Love, which brings the possible number of new works in this collection down to eight. Here’s where I lost motivation and decided not to use an Excel spreadsheet to figure out which stories were new.

Erdrich’s website at Harper’s about the stories in The Red Convertible claims that, “She has ordered them chronologically but also by theme and voice.” What? This isn’t at all obvious, and not stated in the book’s preface. Here are the seemingly contradictory statements that Erdrich makes in her preface to this collection:

Most of the stories in this volume are those germinal ones that would not let go of me. Some waited many years to make their way into books. Some were first published in magazines. Others stayed in my notebooks until I decided to finish them for this collection and are published here for the first time.

With the help of my admirable friend Lisa Record, who found and cataloged the stories as they were originally published, I have put together this collection. In almost every case I have not changed the stories from their first incarnations. I tried not to tinker around with them and have edited only when I could not help it, or when, as with “Naked Woman Playing Chopin,” the story was cut for length.

As for the new and hitherto unpublished ones, I am certain, as always, they are finished and will remain stories.

Devotees of Erdrich’s books, then, have the least to gain from their $27.95 investment in The Red Convertible: there’s simply too little that isn’t pulled from her “novels.” But the rest of us, who’ve read and enjoyed occasional works by Erdrich over the years? For us, this collection has plenty to offer.

Mavis Gallant’s advice to read short stories in increments rather than in fast succession as you would the chapters of a novel should be taken to heart as you read this collection. Most of Erdrich’s stories are told in the first person, leaving a chorus of “I’s” that blend together, most spoken in the same somber key. Here are the first lines from a few of the stories.

“The Red Convertible”: “I was the first one to drive a convertible on my reservation.”

“Scales”: “I was sitting before my third or fourth Jellybean – which is anisette, grain alcohol, a lit match, and a small wet explosion in the brain.”

“Saint Marie”: “So when I went there I knew the Dark Fish must rise.”

“The Little Book”: “In the year 1960, my husband Louis and I built a new house on the edge of Blue Mound.”

Furthermore, nearly all the stories in the first half of the collection are set in Minnesota and feature characters of Chippewa heritage. To read one after another of these stories, especially in the first half of the collection, is to risk losing all sense of time and character specificity, and this diminishes the smoldering fire in each story.

As I read The Red Convertible, I turned down pages where Erdrich struck a strong, clear note of insight in her stories, moments where characters connect with themselves and the elements of their worlds in telling ways. Erdrich’s Chippewa stories in the first half of the collection are especially indicative of the themes and narrative voice of her early stories. Each Erdrich character bears the heavy weight of family and heritage on their psyches; no matter the plot, the real battle these characters are fighting is with their past. Often Erdrich sprinkles a mystic dust into the plots – the ability to heal with the touch of a hand, an infant carried to safety on the back of a dog, braids infused with the power of revenge – as a way to rouse these characters from their burdens and force them to step differently in the world. For example, in the final paragraph of “Scales,” a story about a woman who helps another through her pregnancy, the baby is finally born, seemingly as heavily burdened as his convict father and immovable mother. However, when put on the scales used to weigh trucks, where the narrator and mother work, it is as though the baby has been freed from his family’s burden and comes to the world perfectly weightless:

Dot and I continued to work the last weeks together. Once we weighed baby Jason. We unlatched his little knit suit, heavy as armor, and bundled him in a light crocheted blanket. Dot went into the shack to adjust the weights. I stood there with Jason. He was such a solid child, he seemed heavy as lead in my arms. I placed him on the ramp between the wheel sights and held him steady for a moment, then took my hands slowly away. He stared calmly into the rough, distant sky. He did not flinch when the wind came from every direction, wrapping us tight enough to squeeze the very breath from a stone. He was so dense with life, such a powerful distillation of Dot and Gerry, it seemed he might weigh about as much as any load. But that was only a thought, of course. For as it turned out, he was too light and did not register at all.

Or in this scene from “The World’s Greatest Fisherman,” a Chippewa family sits around a table and can’t even discuss the eating of a skunk without opening a deep vein of pain:

“You’d eat shit,” said Delmar.
I stared at his clean profile. He was staring across the table, at nobody. His lip had curled down in some imitation of soap-opera bravado, but his chin trembled. I saw him clench his jaw and then felt a kind of wet-blanket sadness coming down over us all. Lynette shrugged brightly, and brushed away his remark. But it stayed at the table, as if it had opened a door on something. Some sad, ugly scene we could not help but enter. I took a long hard drink, and leaned comfortlessly toward Uncle Eli.

And in this scene from “Knives,” where a man and a woman decide to finally stop “collecting dust” and enter into an illicit affair. If only for that moment, light shed on their union unburdens them:

We sit there for a while collecting dust until the silence and absence of Russell from the house grows very evident. And then, putting down our glasses, we walk up the stairs. At the door to my room, I take the hat from his hand. I hang it on my doorknob and beckon him in. And this time, I have been there before. I’ve had two weeks to figure out the missing areas of books. He is shocked by what I’ve learned. It is like his mind darkens. Where before there was shuffling and silence, now there are cries. Where before we were hidden, now the shocking glare. I pull the blinds up. What we do is well worth a second look, even if there are only the squirrels in the box elders.

“The Leap” marks a point about halfway through the collection where I started turning down even more pages. It is at this point that the stories’ themes shift towards characters trying to give meaning to the burdens which haunt them, rather than accepting or running from them. The characters are not all Chippewa; some of the stories are set in New Hampshire, and some in Minneapolis rather than on the Plains. True, “The Leap,” reads more like a fragment than a traditional short story: while the main consequence of the leap a mother, a former trapeze artist, takes from a tree to save her daughter from a burning house is revealed, other more subtle consequences remain unexplored. However, even in old age the mother remains a nearly magical source of wonder to her daughter, and there is something alluring about that magic that makes “The Leap” stand out:

My mother is the surviving half of a blindfold trapeze act, not a fact I think about much even now that she is sightless, the result of encroaching and stubborn cataracts. She walks slowly through our house here in New Hampshire, lightly touching her way along walls and running her hands over shelves, books, the drift of a grown child’s belongings and castoffs. She has never upset an object or so much as brushed a magazine onto the floor. She has never lost her balance or bumped into a closet door left carelessly open.

The daughter’s voice in “The Leap” is very similar to the voice of the daughter in one of the final stories in the collection, “The Painted Drum.” The mothers in nearly all of Erdrich’s later stories are oh-so different from the harsh, judgmental mothers in the early Chippewa stories. The mother in “The Painted Drum” is presented in a soft-focus that feels full of romance:

We sat there with our food between us. My mother’s hair, sleek and pulled back in a knot, was very white. She bore me late in age, when she had given up on getting pregnant. I was a gift. It’s nice to be told, all your life, that you are gift to someone. We were very happy right then, although I don’t know exactly why. Perhaps it was just because our secret expectations had been met.

I was not surprised to learn that “The Painted Drum” was a novel excerpt because when I reached the end, there were so many unresolved questions. The main character has stolen a Chippewa drum from a dead man’s collection and is hiding it in her room. We’ve been told the drum has secret powers. The story’s ending has finality to it – “I feel the breath of my own passage, as though my dead self and my living self briefly met in that doorway to sleep” – but the character’s journey is far from complete. She’s stolen a drum, but the consequences of that action have barely been explored before we bid adieu. In my personal criteria for judging short stories, a character takes (or becomes victim of) an action and most of the consequences of that action are explored over the course of the short story. Based on my definition, “The Painted Drum” is not a short story. However, I am quite willing to accept an artist’s vision of her literary craft on its own terms. If Erdrich would define her vision of these works more precisely, I could be convinced that “The Painted Drum” and “The Leap” are short stories rather than excerpts. Ahhh, if only the preface to The Red Convertible had been used for this purpose!

“Fuck with Kayla and You Die” is an example of a story that lets all the consequences of the main character’s actions unfold in dark and delicious ways. Given the story’s location in The Red Convertible between “The Bingo Van” and “Best Western,” it dates from 1990, but I could find no reference to its previous publication in a magazine or novel. It could well be part of the novels The Bingo Palace or even Tales of Burning Love, but my incomplete knowledge of these works leaves me at a disadvantage. And again I have reason to wish we had a more complete history of the origins of these Red Convertible stories! In any case, whether this story is an excerpt from a novel or not, it’s a complete success as a short story. Our protagonist Roman Baker has a set of keys dropped into his hand outside of an Indian casino by a White patron who thinks he’s an Indian valet. Roman gets in the car, checks out the patron’s address from his registration, then heads to his house with the intention of stealing some cash and jewelry. Instead, he ends up a guest at the patron’s surprise birthday party:

Roman had never before done anything that was strictly criminal. But this break-in, where he hadn’t had to actually break in, this was given to him. ….He felt he that he should do something bold, or important, with this piece of fate that he’d been handed. As he was thinking of what he might do, someone knocked on the door. Roman’s first instinct was not to answer. But the expectant quality of the silence was too much for him. He went to the door and opened it. There stood a woman and a man, both in coats but wearing no scarves of hats. The woman held a wrapped gift. The man carried a crockpot out of which there issued a faint and delicious, smoky, bean-soup scent.

When Roman leaves under the guise of buying more strawberry wine coolers, he heads back to the casino to make sure the patron gets his keys back and attends his own party. This is when the story takes a dark turn and you realize that that Roman and we have been balancing over a chasm of unexpected heartbreak.

In the lengthy preface to Mavis Gallant’s Collected Stories, Gallant talks about everything from her favorite children’s books to her life as a journalist to insights into how and why she created the fiction she did. There’s an informative table of contents that groups the stories by the eras of their settings or by their interlocking characters, as well as giving the year of their publication in The New Yorker. In other words, reader can enjoy the stories in their new “collected” setting and experience them differently than they had when they first read them in The New Yorker, perhaps even seeing new fiery points of light they’d missed in their first readings.

Unfortunately, Erdrich does not follow this model for The Red Convertible. There are so many missed opportunities where her stories or excerpts could’ve sparkled more brightly. For example, she could have linked the stories with related characters by a chapter heading and given us a chart and a timeline showing their relationships to each other, such as Andrea Barrett did in Ship Fever. She could have let us know which stories were new and what prompted her to finish them and add them to this collection. She could have put the novel excerpts under their own heading, so they could be enjoyed for what they were – excerpts. These are memorable writings filled with moments of truth and beauty. Would the addition of this information have made the collection more worthy of its purchase price and have added to your reading enjoyment? Definitely.

Karen Vanuska’s creative non-fiction piece “Lost and Found” appeared in the December 2008 issue of The Battered Suitcase. Her short fiction has appeared in UC Irvine’s Faultline Journal of Art and Literature. She also reviews book for the Half Moon Bay Review. Her literary blog can be found at http://karenvanuska.livejournal.com/.

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