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Four Takes: The art of the short story, The Boston Sunday Globe


November 15, 2020

On the train that is literature, the short story is often relegated to second-class, while the novel travels in luxury. Yet many fiction writers freely admit that the novel is the more forgiving form. Short stories are high-wire acts, easily foiled by a misstep. Then too, tradition weighs heavily. Sit down to write a short story and the eyes of Chekhov are upon you.

Nevertheless, for readers, especially in these days of frayed attention spans, a good short story beckons with the promise of immediate escape.

For a long time, beginning writers dutifully compiled short story collections before moving on to the novel. In recent years, however, the conventional order has given way. Powered by a hefty advance, Emma Cline’s novel “The Girls” landed splashily in 2016, when she was just 27. Now Cline is back with “Daddy,” a set of stories that impressively extend her reach.

Some of the protagonists are young women; several are older men with a precarious grip on career, family, or both. A recurring theme is the gulf between parents and grown (or nearly grown) children, whose regard for their elders lands somewhere between pity and contempt. The characters in these stories are driven by raw need: men for women, women for a reliable refuge in the world.

Throughout, Cline displays an almost preternatural skill. Writerly flourishes abound, and if they occasionally over-shoot, they are never foolish. One of dozens that land perfectly appears in “Northeast Regional,” when a man seated on a train makes eye contact with a girl who has just boarded. “Her gaze was unsettling, too specific,” Cline notes.

The author’s darker shadings can sometimes feel strained, as though substituting for lived experience. Overall, however, “Daddy” is a striking achievement, the assured work of a young writer with talent to burn.

If Cline is the new kid on the block, Walter Mosley has been around it a time or two. Known primarily for his crime fiction, he has generated more than 60 books, alighting gracefully in almost every genre. His new story collection, “The Awkward Black Man,” reveals an ease with the form, and a sly mastery of O. Henry-style endings.

Like apartments tantalizingly lit at night, these New York-based stories offer multiple glimpses of lives that remain half-realized. Typically, their tender-hearted subjects have at least some college education and solid employment histories. Many also have a problematic ardor for a particular woman.

Stolen or borrowed identities are a favorite motif. In “Otis,” an intellectually gifted youth called Crash encounters an unlikely soul mate when both seek refuge in a campground. Crash has helped slower schoolmates cheat, and fears he has been found out. Otis has the problem currently glossed as anger management. He hopes one day to find a place where he will never again be provoked into rage but tells Crash: “My daddy told me before he died that that place was called Dead.”

The white middle-class characters in Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s collection “Likes” face subtler dislocations. Parenthood is a central concern, as is social status. In the title story, a father tries to understand his adolescent daughter through her Instagram posts, and remains scrupulously silent when she finally confides that she has no friends. The superb “Bedtime Story” opens with another father reminiscing, and, through his wife’s eyes, goes on to probe the erotically complex history of a marriage.

Like Cline, Bynum turned to the novel first. Critics praised both “Madeleine is Sleeping” (2004) and “Ms. Hempel Chronicles” (2008). For some writers though (Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor and John Cheever spring to mind), the short story offers all the scaffolding a literary imagination could need.

Pamela Painter seems to fall into this category. Her latest book, “Fabrications,” serves as a rewarding re-introduction, with seven new and 24 previously published stories.

The author of four earlier collections, Painter remains in full command of her craft. A retiree in the story “Brochures” is stunned to find his marriage crumbling. “Blood-Red Moon” depicts a war veteran yoked to a reckless son-in-law who has yet to encounter loss. In a classic early story, “The Next Time I Meet Buddy Rich,” a drummer in a rock band reaches a career turning point that is lyrically resolved.

Painter is no stylistic show-off. Her recent stories, especially, have a distilled quality, suggesting that she is as exacting toward herself as she reputedly is toward her students. (Painter has taught writing at Emerson College since the 1990s.) Still, who would have her omit this embellishment: a wife is observed “finishing her martini’s third lurid olive.”

Without that “lurid,” you might never summon the image; with it, the rhythmic phrase evokes each olive in turn. Such are the pleasures that short story writers toil to deliver, and that can return us to a slightly gentled world.

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