Short stories in a tradition of excellence
By ELAINE FOWLER PALENCIA
Richard Burgin. Man Without Memory. Pp. 124. $14.95 (cloth).
Cary C. Holladay. The People Down South. Pp. 132. $14.95 (cloth).
Erin McGraw. Bodies at Sea. Pp. 158. $14.95 (cloth).
Barry Targan. Falling Free. Pp. 121. $14.95 (cloth).
All are part of the Illinois Short Fiction series published by University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 1989.
In recent years, publishing has seen a renewed interest in the short story collection, so that now a relatively unknown writer can achieve wide recognition for a group of short pieces. Shiloh and Other Stories, for example, made Bobbie Ann Mason a household name among serious readers. The Illinois Short Fiction series at the University of Illinois Press is in an excellent position to capitalize on this trend, having steadily brought out four collections a year since 1975 (amounting to 56 volumes in 1989) as well as a 17-story, best-of-series anthology entitled Prime Number (edited by Ann Lowry Weir and published in 1988). With the increased interest in the form, this series can only get better. Already it is a fine place to look for the emerging writer as well as the established but less commercial author. Russell Banks, Robley Wilson Jr., Merrill Joan Gerber and Helen Norris are but a few of the consistently productive artists who have appeared here.
As the title suggests, a sense of place figures significantly in Cary C. Holladay's The People Down South. The title character in "Hetty Hawken" probably would never do the things she does were she not stuck in a Virginia coal town. Horace Kimball in "The People Down South" searches for human bones with a backhoe, so that they can be reburied away from the future site of a plywood mill. Horace is trapped in a past he no longer shares with the once beautiful Juneal Wailes, who has grown fat, slovenly and bored with him, just as a cruder New South is being built on the bones of the Old. Though Holladay appears still to be searching for her major themes, she has a fine, supple style and a flair for character. We could recognize her people on the street — figures like the sinister Chinese photographer Marty Chung in "Keepers" and fat Bushrod Keller, who in "Yard Sale" has loved his neighbor Mary Flagg for so long "that it was a habit, like going to work." Many of Holladay's main characters are young and near the beginning of their adventures, which gives an airy, expectant feel to the collection.
In contrast, Erin McGraw's specialty in Bodies at Sea is alienation. Unable to express affection straightforwardly, many of her characters reroute it into obsession. In "A Thief,'' a professor begins by stealing small objects from coat pockets and ends by stealing a baby. An entire network of people in "Finding Sally" periodically mobilizes itself to track down a beautiful, irresponsible girl and save her from herself, probably compensating for an inability to risk themselves in whole relationships. Always the impulse to be emotionally truthful comes too late. In "Testimonial," a daughter imagines engraving "you have been dearly loved" on her dying mother's tombstone, but never expresses the feeling aloud. McGraw is good at showing the despair that lies beneath the smooth surfaces of people's lives. In that regard, the overarching metaphor of drowning in this collection recalls Stevie Smith's poem about the man who "was much farther out than you thought And not waving but drowning."
Richard Burgin's Man Without Memory is perhaps the most cerebral of the four volumes, in the sense that most of his narrators construct themselves from thought. In the title story a man loses his memory and retrieves it by studying lists about his parents that he wrote in childhood. But here, as in most of Burgin's stories, personal history and the future have little importance in comparison to the moment. Burgin has also published Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges, and the influence of the master is evident in the mind games Burgin's characters play with themselves. In "Notes on Mrs. Slaughter" a man and his landlady are being watched by the Mafia — or are they? There is no corroboration outside the mind of the intensely observant narrator. For these self-centered protagonists, even epiphanies are not transcendent. In "Aerialist," the narrator becomes so taken with the sky view from his high-rise apartment that he watches it several hours a day. When his moment of revelation comes, however, it is quickly turned into an opportunity to
Competent, intelligent, sometimes memorable, these 41 pieces are a substantial addition to the tradition of excellence established by the Illinois Short Fiction series
meet a girl he used to spy on: "I knew then that all entities are a part of God and that my purpose was to put this knowledge to active use. I decided to call Lisa." Except that the characters don't have enough money, one could hardly do better for a description of disaffected, Reagan-era thirty somethings.
In achievement and craft, Barry Targan is easily the most mature writer of the group. Targan's dramas are played out against socioeconomic backgrounds of such rich detail that it is possible to read his stories purely for the pleasure of experiencing
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different occupations. What animates all of his characters, in varying balance, are love and work. In "Dominion" clothier Martin Poverman is nearly ruined by an unscrupulous partner. Knowing no other solution to problems but hard work, he starts over and labors day and night to give his only son Robert the best. When Robert becomes involved with a religious group and threatens to abandon college plans, Poverman joins the group and works as hard at outsmarting its leaders as he has ever worked in his life in order to save his son: "And unsheathing the great sword of his love, he waved it about his balding, sweaty head and advanced upon his Hosts in dubious battle."
Targan's characters lead lives of stirring emotional complexity because they face up to matters at hand without hesitation or over-intellectualizing. In "Falling Free" jack-of-all-trades Higgins and his wife Miranda bounce from one business venture to another in their Airstream trailer. Higgins might at first seem unable to stick to a job, but in fact parachute training during World War II forever changed his priorities. Jumping over Texas from 25,000 feet, he was "seized by a nearly unutterable intention to possess what from this height appeared to be boundlessly offered." Afterwards he needs few possessions because in a spiritual sense he "owns" the whole world. His detachment serves him well when he and Miranda, now desperately ill, are hijacked by a cocaine smuggler. Perceiving that the man's attachment to his cocaine-filled knapsack has imprisoned him, Higgins can act decisively, seeing himself as merely the agent of the smuggler's own self-destructiveness.
These writers all teach in universities and write in the mainstream of the current incarnation of the short story form. By and large they are concerned to map the known world, looking for choice, unexplored pockets. Competent, intelligent, sometimes memorable, these 41 pieces are a substantial addition to the tradition of excellence established by the Illinois Short Fiction series.
Elaine Fowler Palencia has published novels and short stones. She is the director of the Red Herring Fiction Workshop in Champaign-Urbana and is currently serving on the Literature Advisory Panel of the Illinois Arts Council.
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