The Penguin Book of the Modern American Short Story

Part Two, continued from HERE


Edited by John Freeman

My previous reviews of classic or older fictions: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/reviews-of-older-books/

When I read this book, my thoughts will appear in the comment stream below…

13 responses to “*

  1. RIVER OF NAMES (1988): Dorothy Allison

    “…the three of them slit their arms, not the wrists but the bigger veins up near the elbow;”

    This powerful narration is attritionally unfurled by an explicitly named “lesbian”, a narration of her past which is at the inverse tontine’s top of an enormous pyramid of siblings and cousins caught up in an incessant skein of rape, self-harm, death by inevitable or foolhardy accidents and by design, heinous cruelty, death by child birth, torture by child abuse, where even “pricks” become manifold ‘broom handles’, et al…
    And all this is heard by her beloved Jesse, a woman today who comforts the narrator with love and belief in this wildly cruel backstory… that river of names in the head. The narrator’s head.
    Whatever the laughing gas involved.

    “If you fight back, they kill you.”


    Yes, we know what momentously happened in the UK this very week, a metaphor of death by ‘same-sex groping’ of so-called ‘broom-handles’…or simply by a form of truth in the ever-flowing river of accepted self-deceit around us, a river that political narcissism at the top of the pyramid can so easily produce?

    “A full bottle of vodka will kill you…”

  2. EMERGENCY: Denis Johnson

    “…I just started wandering around, over to the coronary-care unit, down to the cafeteria, et cetera,…”

    This is so off the wall it is neither inside nor outside, a story that one needs to pluck out of the mind’s eye like a mote, if not a knife, as a clerk and an orderly in the Emergency Room of a hospital chum up and are so blindsided by the blood and guts they take some of the pills in the medicine cupboards and go to a funfair that is so utterly funfairish beyond Ligotti that they end up at a military graveyard which turns into a drive-in cinema — in the deep snow! And they effectively let eight little bunny rabbits die. A story that makes me philosophical about never being able to be philosophical. Untouchable by death.

    “There’s so much goop inside of us, man,” he said, “and it all wants to get out.”

  3. STICKS by George Sanders

    Moving, poignant, touching vignette — deploying “a kind of crucifix” that Dad put in the garden and with whatever the cycles of his life and the seasons with which he disguised it as serial costumed icons for us children to celebrate. He even became avant garde with it! But he could never disguise death itself. The next people who lived there disguised it with invisibility. Nothing ever sticks forever.

  4. FIESTA, 1980: Junot Díaz

    “I met the Puerto Rican woman right after Papi had gotten the van. He was taking me on short trips, trying to cure me of my vomiting.”

    This summarises the plot, Dominican migrants in New York. Looking back in 1996 to 1980, Yunior a boy then and the rest of his family and his propensity to be car-sick. The day of travelling in the car to have a party with new arrived members of the family amid the golden tassels and stucco ceilings like a stalactite heaven and the nigh longest nails in the world on his aunt’s fingers. Yunior’s direct knowledge of his Papi’s affair with a Puertan Rican woman, and his love for his Mami in the front of the car with his Papi, and his older brother beside him. Papi didn’t allow Yunior to eat before car journeys, but on the way home from this wild party that we share along with its bad-ass and wussy characteristics, he ends up being sick I guess. Emotional sickness more than what he had eaten at the party? Poor loveable wusses, all, not just Mami.

    “Papi was old-fashioned; he expected your undivided attention when you were getting your ass whupped. You couldn’t look him in the eye either—that wasn’t allowed. Better to stare at his belly button, which was perfectly round and immaculate.”

  5. SILENCE: Lucia Berlin

    “Silence can be wicked, plumb wicked.”

    “In third grade I read well but I didn’t even know addition. Heavy brace on my crooked back. I was tall but still childlike. A changeling in this city, as if I’d been reared in the woods by mountain goats. I kept peeing in my pants,…”
    The multi-touching story of this mostly fatherless ‘I’, a girl-to-woman we get to know somehow as well as ourselves, and it is no surprise that she, too, ends up, in the story’s last sentence, understanding Uncle John better by dint of her own filter of strength-as-weakness. And why she’d kept silent about Grandpa and her sister. “…pinches that looked like stars”. Later a jabbing thing against her own behind.
    “…I get fiction and reality mixed up, but I don’t actually ever lie.”
    And the understanding we all develop through the strength of our own weakness, she of her Mamie and of her friend Hope, a Syrian girl who looked like a baby baboon. “We saw Mildred Pierce six times and The Beast with Five Fingers ten.” — “washing bloody menstrual rags” — “mumblety-peg” and stabbing between fingers, and later welding a sororal knot by the blood of those fingers. Petty theft et al. And the mysterious “chances” they ‘sold’ for a vanity case, and the necessary watershed of a car-ride with Hope’s elder brother… and that sororal knot broken.
    Silly moments like…
    “We saw four Siamese cats who used the real toilet and even flushed it.”
    And prophetic moments, for our own times today, like…
    “I thought the only Odessa was where Hope went.”
    And Uncle John (“If only I had understood him half as much as he always understood me, I could have found out how he hurt, why he worked so hard to get laughs.”) — with probably the most telling climactic elbow-trigger in fiction literature that already teems with elbows—

    “He had a bottle between his thighs, was driving with his elbows…”

  6. THE TWENTY-SEVENTH MAN: Nathan Englander

    “‘I’d much rather have a book than shoes.’
    They all knitted their brows and studied the man; even Bretzky propped himself up on an elbow.”

    “The lightbulb hanging from a frayed wire in the ceiling went on. This was a relief; not only an end to the darkness but a separation, a seam in the seeming endlessness.”

    This is about Stalin’s edict for 26 subversive Jewish writers to be collected from wherever they were living and taken to a place with a single light bulb ‘God’ and then executed with an exactitude of simultaneity. It is both poignant and hilarious ….and inspiring for all writers and thinkers, and I wonder if the Tractate mentioned was the Middoth of the Talmud created by M.R. James? And whether the somehow accidental inclusion of a 27th writer, a young unpublished writer called Pinchas, someone more concerned with books than shoes, was an admin error on the list OR a preternatural synchronicity of gestalt so that he could be present to write a new work under the light bulb and increase his audience by reading it to his older hero writers including Zunser just before they all died together! Or was this story itself, as a lightbulb moment, tantamount to his own work by dint of his chance presence in it, a work undetermined by any God, even by Stalin himself?

    “Why write at all when your readers have been turned to ash?”

    “Zunser was an actual person. My God, he had seen the great seer pee into a bucket.”

    “They hated the bulb for its control, such a flimsy thing.”

    “‘But why assume the goal is to live?’ Zunser slid the mangled hand onto his stomach.”

    “‘Then,’ asked Pinchas, and to him there was no one else but his mentor in the room, ‘you don’t believe there is any reason I was brought here to be with you? It isn’t part of anything larger, some cosmic balance, a great joke of the heavens?’”

  7. BULLET IN THE BRAIN: Tobias Wolff

    “He did not remember when everything began to remind him of something else.”

    A startling story of a man frustrated by his visit to a bank and its customer care, involved in a sudden bank robbery instigating what? . . . well, the plot spoiler is built into the title, but the single memory the brain recalls — as opposed to the shuttling of missing memories of a drowned man — is tellingly trivial compared to what he otherwise are. Sic.

    “She looked at him with drowning eyes.”

  8. THE HERMIT’S STORY: Rick Bass

    “Perhaps someone viewing the tracks could have discerned the pattern, or perhaps not, but it did not matter, for their tracks—the patterns, direction, and tracing of them—were obscured by the drifting snow, sometimes within minutes after they were laid down.”

    …and that is how I try to store fiction works by gestalt real-time reviewing, so as later to transcend my abominable memory!
    This particular work is a real reading discovery, a passion of a moment now and hopefully forever, an all-sensory, dream-like trip of survival of man (Gray Owl) and woman (Ann) — as told later by the latter — in blueness-infused Canadian ice fields accompanied by dogs on point for set quails, with an eventual magical aura of a dry lake where the ice has trapped warmer air pockets, and where the lake’s water has seasonally drained away….a story fired by ‘swamp gas’ among the cattails…

    “…she speaks of her work as if the dogs are rough blocks of stone whose internal form exists already and is waiting only to be chiseled free and then released by her, beautiful, into the world.”

    “…as if submerged in another time, or as if everyone else in the world were submerged in time—and as if she and the dogs were pioneers, or survivors of some kind: upright and exploring the present, alive in the world, free of that strange chitin.”

    “—the ice was clear rather than glazed, they could see the spangling of stars, though more dimly; and strangely, rather than seeming to distance them from the stars, this phenomenon seemed to pull them closer, as if they were up in the stars, traveling the Milky Way, or as if the stars were embedded in the ice.”

    “…but there was also the hot muck of the earth’s massive respirations breathing out warmth and being trapped and protected beneath that ice, so that there were warm currents doing battle with the lone cold current.”

    “…across their sleeping brains in the language we call dreams but which, for the dogs, was reality:”

    “What would it have looked like, seen from above—the orange blurrings of their wandering trail beneath the ice; and what would the sheet of lake-ice itself have looked like that night—throbbing with ice-bound, subterranean blue and orange light of moon and fire?”

    “If the snipe survived, they would be among the first to see it. Perhaps they believed that the pack of dogs, and Gray Owl’s and Ann’s advancing torches, had only been one of winter’s dreams.”

    “…how the world must have appeared to them when they were in that trance, that blue zone, where the odors of things wrote their images across the dogs’ hot brainpans.”


    “…she had to break the ice above her by bumping and then battering it with her head and elbows, struggling like some embryonic hatchling;”

    And, after that telling ‘elbow’ moment in this story, so I will take you to another purpose in my gestalt real-time reviewing, i.e. the burrowing of synchronicities or serendipitous coincidences as borrowed from a preternatural and pareidoliac power, a power that is literature, just like those ice-miners plumbing the power of dream and of the harshness of earth itself as filtered by the nuggets of words…and today, I can report that earlier today I happened to read and review SOLID OBJECTS by Virginia Woolf (HERE), a telling comparison and contrast …

    “…not a gem given to one by some favored or beloved individual but, even more valuable, some gem found while out on a walk—perhaps by happenstance, or perhaps by some unavoidable rhythm of fate—and hence containing great magic, great strength.”

  9. A TEMPORARY MATTER: Jhumpa Lahiri

    “In the dimness, he knew how she sat, a bit forward in her chair, ankles crossed against the lowest rung, left elbow on the table.”

    That elbow marks the start of the very first in a series of scheduled temporary power-cuts at 8 pm…

    “I remember during power failures at my grandmother’s house, we all had to say something,” Shoba continued.

    And the current encroachment of aberrancy in their marriage, including a still birth, seems to start resolving itself, a relationship around a calendar of William Morris wallpaper designs and complex cuisine that he, Shukumar, conducts after he becomes a bit of a hermit and she widens her horizons, and they tell each other secrets during the recurring darknesses, home truths or failings that they had not before told each other, sessions that evolve because of Shoba’s backstory statement above. A pattern or gestalt that is also still-born?

    There is a remarkably poignant ending in this organic story of slow-emotional, slow-motional light-and-dark strobes… finally weeping together, but why? Having watched others outside their wobbly marital bubble during the serial darknesses, this being one telling example…
    “The woman laughed, slipping her arm through the crook of her husband’s elbow. ‘Want to join us?’
    ‘No thanks,’ Shoba and Shukumar called out together. It surprised Shukumar that his words matched hers.”

  10. THE PENTHOUSE: Andrew Holleran

    “Our fantasy was Ashley—even if we were all afraid of his turning his attention on us, and could not understand what he was doing with us in the first place, so far from the Land of Ormolu.”

    “The latter category, he said, included the people who came to the penthouse; we were like dancers between songs who slow down and even stop while trying to decide if the new theme being introduced is worth dancing to. The novelist was right. The year we went to Ashley’s was a strange time: Something was ending, but nothing had replaced it, and Ashley’s penthouse seemed like an oasis.”

    This is astoundingly free-flowing prose that sweeps through your body-mind like a whole “gay” decade in New York, the seventies into the start of the eighties, watching I CLAUDIUS as it comes out on TV, with the spectacular architecture of city fashion from the towering penthouse’s vantage point with all manner of characters, including the novelist who expostulates on Proust, even writes part of this very novelette as ‘I’ someone else! And a professor writing about Edith Wharton, and many men like Village People who if they shave off their moustaches are left with thin wounded lips. Ashley becomes the Queen of the Pyramid or Tontine, until the whole ponzi penthouse panoply is brought down by being turned over to the police by the novelist himself. So much here that unrolls endlessly into your brain, “gay” or not. The end of an era that seeps into your very veins with fast-moving injections of words…

    “A siren was heading downtown in the street below; a tug was pushing a barge up the river; the sky itself was dead white; it was one of those moments of sudden stillness when you realize everything you have been saying, and doing, is a waste of time,…”

  11. THE FIX: Percival Everett

    “Thank you, this is terrific. All you used was chewing gum. Can you fix other things?”

    The page-turning experience of Douglas in his sandwich bar saving seemingly homeless Sherman from the men accosting him in the street outside, and Douglas asking him to stay and work there because Sherman had the miraculous skill in fixing things that did not work by using the blur of his fingers. Even Douglas’s wife Sheila was convinced that this stranger with the same first three initials of her own name was not dangerous when he fixed her massage machine! And then his knack at fixing things later extended to Jesus Christ proportions but only after…

    “It began when Sherman offered and then repaired a small radio-controlled automobile owned by a fat boy.”

    “‘If you knew this would happen, why did you fix all of those things?’
    ‘Because I can. Because I was asked.’”

    “If you irrigate a desert, you might empty a sea. It’s a complicated business, fixing things.”

    Until he could not fix what I call the consequence curse of being sought out by his ability to fix anything or anyone, even today’s pervading drought in my own real-time.

    “‘I am the empty sea’, he said.”

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