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Three Book Reviews of Short Story Collections by Young Writers  


Christina Milletti, The Religious and Other Fictions (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2006. ISBN-13: 978-0-88748-453-7 Paper $16.95 pp 195)

Benjamin Percy, The Language of Elk (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2006. ISBN-0-88748-454-9 Paper $16.95 pp. 184)

Nathan Leslie, Drivers (Maplewood, NJ: Hamilton Stone Editions, 2005. ISBN-0-9714873-5-9 Soft cover $14.95 pp 236)

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Story: "n. an account of an incident or of a series of incidents, either true or invented." And there are splendid inventions in these volumes, no doubt some parts of true stories as well.

The short-story has a cycle akin to the business cycle: It climbs its way up to the peak, begins a steep descent, hits bottom, seems dead, and then begins the long ascent up to the peak. For quite awhile the short story, since the decline of consumer magazines interest in fiction, has slid down to the bottom. Writers who wanted to sharpen their literary skills were shunted into the "new journalism," of Hunter Thompson or Tom Wolfe variety. "No one reads the short story anymore," editors would say.

I'm happy to report that it appears the short story is ratcheting itself up the long slope toward excellence again. The younger generation rightfully look at their own talents and scoff at the older generation and set off toward its own horizon. They see the visual mediums they grew up with as hopeless and more a sign of some decay in culture that has been imposed on them from childhood. Add to that a horrible political atmosphere now infecting the culture where hatred collects easy facts and shoots at the object of hatred, all at the expense of the creative imagination. Young writers are analyzing this disease and avoiding it by returning to one of the prime instances of creative imagination: the short story. Or, we should say that facts without a creative imagination are simply counters in a game played by hateful people. Imagination undermines the kinds of hatred stimulated by easy facts viewed by different sets of people who hate.

I can't say for certain but perhaps these young writers have given up the politics of the hateful facts for something much more enduring and hopeful.

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Christina Milletti, The Religious and Other Fictions

These are some clever, even exquisite stories where a kind of magical mind or spirit is working.

Things go poof and wishes are answered. A mother is transformed into a bubble at the bottom of the kitchen sink, and in "the smallest apartment 1,000 girls lived in a single room and slept on a single orange couch."

The stories of Christina Milletti are a great relief from the sucker stories told on TV or in the movies. She writes stories that are possible because she believes the imagination is a living thing. The reader wants to shout "bravo," a few times. Her characters travel all around as many young people do today. My daughter travels to Paris three times before the age of 30. Her friends travel around east Africa for a year avoiding machete knives and AIDS. I don't understand it but I think it's marvelous. Ms. Milletti is part of this vagabond generation who seem to get where they want to go to. It's not like Hemingway when the vast numbers of Americans had hardly made it out of their own backyards. No, this is something else; a kind of global migration that will mark the style of the times.

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There are eleven stories in this volume. Among my favorites are Where Noone is Now and Letters from H. Some like the Smallest Apartment are short exercises in pure imagination where the improbable is perfectly logical and matter-of-fact. And a story like Parcel Post is a brief story that expands into the possibility of stick-it notes accumulating to make a calendar, a window, a door, many doors that the main character passes through every day.

Ms. Milletti has learned the lessons of most fiction writers in the latter stages of the 20th century. Don't compete with the camera for veracity. Create something the mind has never encountered before, something even the ubiquitous camera can not reach. Don't give the audience some boring facsimile of itself or of its society. Give it something it can't possibly know about. The mind leaps alive at the prospect and in a free democracy there is nothing more fatal than a dead mind lying in the mud of its own boring ignorance. Mind leaping alive at the prospect.....saves it.

My impression is that the short story is a very natural form for this writer. She has a confident voice; someone who has studied the voices of modern literature and has chiseled out something she feels is her own. Unlike the other two writers Ms. Milletti is not that interested in native characters or mundane reality. Her characters have to be out and about in exotic venues doing improbable things. In the end it is the way the writer intercedes with her imagination and traces a few of the possibilities that make the characters and the stories interesting.

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Benjamin Percy, The Language of Elk

This is a pretty good ride for a "debut collection." Percy is very confident in what he is doing.

"Summers in Eastern Oregon, the wind blows in heated gusts, like the breath of a big animal."

Unlike Milletti's characters, his stay in one place. It is their universe; the "mountain towns and low-life taverns and high desert ranches of Oregon." He has that typical American story-writer affinity for the underachieving, who also possess a kind of penetrating wisdom of what surrounds them.

"Denis began acting strangely soon after he dug up the dead Indian." Percy has that other superb American quality: Spartan prose that exudes richness because the writer is writing through an enriched, silent imagination of place. The words have meaning. He is expressing, as the book jacket puts it, "...the underside of contemporary American west." In this underside the Indian is a dead body torn in two by a wrestling match between Denis and Kim White Owl on the driveway, "Chunks of skin and bone and the dust of decayed organs littered the driveway..."

It's that place where old settler, frontier families who displaced the natives now find themselves besieged by "Californians," and others who threaten their honest, circumscribed life. Anyone with a touch of the rural in them, at least the west, recognizes the condition.

There are marvelous absurdities like the vulture that has somehow gotten inside a Wal-Mart store

Great characters appear like The Bearded Lady who dies in a cold bath and the mortician shaves her beard to make her more presentable.

Oh, there is humor through out these stories and it's the humor that makes it all the more poignant. It is in the fine tradition of Barth and Bartholome black humor. The reader gets close, occasionally, to liking some of these characters but they are so immersed in a world only they know about, surrounded by the giant nature that is the Pacific Northwest you relent a bit and say, "you are a tribe of distant cousins who I used to play with but have totally lost touch with." Is the writer writing out of disgust for where he came from or is he writing out of sympathy for his own upbringing and those he knew? It goes both ways.

There are eight stories in this collection. Unearthed is the first story and one of the more insightful and poignant with the dead Indian a prop in a struggle between a son, a father, a mother who has committed suicide and a native American who chastises the men for digging up Indian graves.

Swans is a gem that begins, "Weekends, Drew bicycled to Huntington Lake, where the Aloha cheerleaders gathered to sunbathe and swim and dive off the high granite cliffs." These stories are American stories just as the paintings of Hopper are American paintings. It is this way, the painting says. It is this way, the story says. There is no real moral. It is like a William Carlos Williams poem; an act of imagination and pure observation that may or may not have a moral but certainly tastes good.

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Nathan Leslie, Drivers

We drive. If nothing else we drive. In a short time we've gone from "the red wheelbarrow," to, "drive, she sd." If you want to experience the modern world walk in a city with cars whizzing by you. Or stand on a freeway overpass after reading Yeats and realize that you are in an epoch never known in the history of mankind. But, we drive. And Nathan Leslie has developed a tidy volume of stories around the act of driving by an assortment of drivers, many of whom you would recognize. Leslie puts the characters in cars and then they reveal themselves in some funny and genuine insights.

The book is a collection of stories Leslie has published in such venues as Connections, The Northern Virginia Review, and Salt River Review. The collection is a hit or miss read. When it hits, it hits high and deep; when it misses you wave at it like a low outside curveball you need to fight off to stay alive in a close game. You protect the plate because the pitcher is good.

Drivers and their cars. Most of the attention is on, appropriately, the drivers but it's fun to listen to some of the die-cast model cars in Cog: "Dowst, Tootsietoy, Barclay, Citroen, Solido, Meccano, Dinky, and Corgi."

Leslie has great powers of observing the mundane, precisely those things we'd miss driving along the freeways. In fact, this book is for anyone who drives, anyone who has had good or bad relations with those machines that are one part necessity, one-part luxury, depending on how much pleasure you get out of driving them.

Interesting, odd characters populate this collection. There is the "surfing mayor of Ungurth, Delaware," who tries to surf Delaware's "puny waves," in his spare time. Or Radford Buckley, the driver-ed teacher, who shows gross car accident movies on the first day of class. "Now imagine the ones I didn't show you. That is you. You know where you are: in the dirt, in a box, your head sewn to your body, your gut stuffed with newspaper."

Some of these stories reminded me of the early Tom Wolfe when he wrote essays for Esquire magazine about Big Daddy or Marshall McCluhan. At other times Leslie writes like a literate, intelligent rapper; one who actually thinks about the words and the expressions that zoom from one page to another. The characters curse a great deal and seem unhappy or closed in someplace they don't want to be and the car is one way out, for brief moments of time.

There are twenty-three stories in this collection. It has a refreshing amount of testosterone considering the great amount of estrogen that makes up literature today. Leslie lets his characters speak for themselves. He is like Percy in that he doesn't want to judge anyone, simply give expression to their frustrations as they negotiate their vehicles through Canyonlands or Kansas or Baltimore. He fills his pages with a lot of dialog and insights as these cars roar down the street.

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These three volumes are not perfect by any means. Milletti needs a little less refinement and Leslie needs to self-edit himself and not let his stories get out of control, even as the cars and drivers are out of control.

It would be refreshing to see the short story escape academia and go out to search for global markets. I know they exist, maybe in places that are just now getting internet access.

These are slight imperfections. And these books carry more in them than a short review can reveal. Young people are experiencing the world in interesting ways. Pay attention. Let them learn the painful art of growth and development.

Young writers exemplify one common quality: They are trying to assess their influences. Their writing is often an effort to, if not shake loose of the influence, at least make it conscious. This is as natural as breathing and hopefully the literary system has tolerance for the effort.

There is no art and literature without growth and development. The pains are real and so are the rewards. But often the rewards are years and years in the making and if the literary system doesn't have any patience, how will the young, creative minds have patience?

I recommend these volumes and support for these writers. They have large writing lives in front of them.

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