I read this one months ago. I didn’t ever get around to blogging about it at the time because it was a loaner from my boss, who in turn got it from a friend of hers. So I couldn’t keep it for very long. Also, how does one even review a seven hundred-page short story anthology? But I wanted to try to do it eventually, and so I found a used copy of the anthology on powells.com, and I’ve sat on it for several months for no better reason than I’ve been procrastinating. It just occurred to me that I don’t think I’ve read a single short story collection since we started the blog. Heaven knows I’ve bought more than a few of them in the past year and a half. Writing about short story collections is not something I’ve felt like learning how to do, but now seems like as good a time as any to start.
This anthology came out in 2008 and features many authors I’ve read or at least heard of, and also quite a few new people. There were so many good stories in this collection that I don’t know which ones to talk about. I’ve been looking through the table of contents and skimming the text for the past half hour, and every one I stop at I want to reread so I can write about it. And this is why I put off dealing with this book…. It’s just too much! Too much, I say. There doesn’t seem to be an overarching theme to the stories, at least not that I could detect, and in the Preface Joyce Carol Oates doesn’t reveal one, other than the desire to put on display the “dazzling variety of the contemporary [literary] scene: styles, tones, subjects, settings, points of view (including, in our highly politicized era, differing and subtly contentious political perspectives) (ix).”
The first story I want to talk about is one by Rick Bass, who I had never heard of before reading this anthology. Since the anthology is organized in alphabetical order by author name, this one is the third one in. Called “The Hermit’s Story,” it’s told as a story within a story, much like Wuthering Heights and The Turn of the Screw, wherein our narrator and I assume his wife, Susan, are visiting friends of theirs, Ann and Roger, for dinner on a snowy and dark winter night. Ann is a dog trainer and tells a story about what she calls her last good job—training six German Shorthair Pointers to be field trial dogs for a man named Gray Owl. When she returns them to Gray Owl, in the wilds of Canada, it’s getting on to winter, or maybe it’s always winter in Canada? Gray Owl, Ann, and the dogs spend the week working in the snow with a bag of quail, so Ann can train Gray Owl and show him what the dogs can do. The last day, they get stuck out in a snowstorm far from home and end up taking shelter in an iced-over lake bed (the water is obviously gone). The descriptions of the world under the ice are beautiful. For example: “The air was a thing of its own—recognizable as air, and breathable as such, but with a taste and odor, an essence, unlike any other air they’d ever breathed (45).” And, “After a while the moon came up and washed out the stars. The light was blue and silver and seemed, Ann said, to be like a living thing. It filled the sheet of ice just above their heads with a shimmering cobalt light, which again rippled as if the ice were moving, rather than the earth itself, with the moon tracking it… (47).” This story does have a happy ending, which I was very concerned it was not going to have when Gray Wolf first fell through the ice into the lake. I thought all the dogs were going to freeze to death, but nothing like that happens.
Another story that I enjoyed from the early part of this anthology is Ann Beattie’s “Lavande.” I’d never read anything by Ann Beattie that I remember, though her name is familiar to me. This story is narrated by an unnamed middle-aged woman whose husband is named Harold. They go on a trip to Rome and meet another couple, Lavande and Donald Stipley. Apparently Harold and our narrator’s daughter was briefly engaged to the Stipley’s son Steven, though it had not lasted long enough for the parents to meet. The ladies spend a fair amount of time together in Rome, and the narrator is very happy, and feels that she has made a new friend. They go shopping in Rome, and “Lavande even spontaneously squeezed my hand, and I remember thinking how nice a gesture that was. How girlish it made me feel (95).” They exchange phone numbers, but it turns out that Lavande gives the narrator fake numbers. The narrator is heartbroken, and also fairly angry. Time passes, and the narrator learns from her daughter that Lavande is not actually her former fiancée’s mother, she is Donald Stipley’s mistress. Which explains the fake phone numbers. Years later, they run into the Donald and Lavande again at the airport. Donald is now an invalid (he had several strokes) and Lavande cares for him. The narrator finally gets her answer. Lavande and Donald were supposed to separate after the trip to Rome, but he had the first of his series of strokes on the plane on the way home. Lavande didn’t think she would ever see the narrator again, and didn’t want to have to explain it all anyway. Harold is very polite and kind, saying they should let bygones be bygones, and the couples go their own ways. The last line in the story is this: “What went unsaid was that nothing could console me, I had needed a friend so very much (105).” I know this story may not seem like much based on my description, but it is beautifully written, and held my attention. The few pages between Lavande ditching our narrator and finding out the truth of her sordid past were quite suspenseful. There’s also some subplot about Angela, the daughter, having a problem with drugs and alcohol, which puts a strain on her relationship with her parents, even long after she gets clean. It seems that the narrator, long before she admits it at the end, is desperately lonely and terribly sad. Angela doesn’t seem to take her mom seriously, and I don’t think she has very many friends. It’s possible that there is a reason why she doesn’t have a lot of friends, but that’s not the point. The story stirred up a lot of my teenage fears of being rejected by my friends. I’m glad I don’t have that kind of paranoia anymore, though even typing those words makes me feel that I’m being ungrateful for all the wonderful friendships I have with all the amazing women in my life. You guys know who you are; I love you all and am grateful that I’ll never need to make friends with a stranger in Rome who will later reject me.
Okay, so that’s my first post about the Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Fiction. If I don’t get through Into the Woods by Saturday, I’m pretty sure I’ll be doing another one sooner rather than later. Thanks for reading!