Small and Concentrated
We Are Taking Only What We Need
By Stephanie Powell Watts
Kansas City: BkMk Press, 2011, 209 pp., $15.95, paperback
Bobcat and Other Stories
By Rebecca Lee
Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2013, 212 pp., $14.95, paperback
Reviewed by Trish Crapo
I love the novel. I’ve confessed this in this column before—I am completely smitten and have been since I was about eight years old, when I devoured C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and my older sister’s collection of Nancy Drews. Of course I love my life, but I also love the way a novel completely obliterates it. I love to be pulled so completely into the lives of characters and into worlds so completely alien from my own that I’m gone for days.
Or, in the case of a big book like War and Peace, which I finally finished, or Moby Dick, which I am still struggling to finish, a novel can engage me in a long-term, on-again-off-again relationship that takes months or even years to resolve. And as anyone who has been in one of these relationships knows, until you finish the thing, even when you’re “off” you’re “on.”
But this summer—perhaps because I was struggling with Moby Dick, or perhaps because I spent half the summer in travel, some of it unexpected and not particularly recreational—I rediscovered the joy of the short story. And loving the short story again got me thinking about what makes a short story great.
First of all, it’s short. And that’s convenient. It’s entirely possible to absorb a short story while sitting at an airplane gate, where I would never crack open Moby Dick. So much easier to stare at the mind-numbing televisions (CNN anyone?) in airport terminals or slip that rumpled magazine out of the seat pocket onboard and browse the articles about up-and-coming Albuquerque or five-star vineyards in the hills outside Traverse City, Michigan—which happened to be the destination of one of my trips, though not the one during which I read the article.
But it just so happened that I looked up from that in-flight magazine and saw, across the aisle, two people reading the same article about the vineyards in Traverse City, and rather than thinking, “Isn’t this great, we’re all connected because we’re all reading the same thing!” I thought, “Oh my God, we’re all reading because we’re bored!”
The next trip, I packed two collections of short stories from my Women’s Review of Books box. Lucky for me, they both turned out to be good choices—which speaks to the power of a good title and interesting cover design. And these two collections reminded me that another thing short stories have going for them is that they’re potent. And potent can be exactly what you need when you finally sit down after dragging your sorry carry-on all over a major metropolitan airport, jam-packed with chain restaurants and abuzz with fluorescent light. You need a shot of real life. Which, oddly enough, can often be delivered only through fiction.
Stephanie Powell Watts had me on the first page of her collection, We Are Taking Only What We Need. Her narrator speaks with such blunt honesty and self-preserving humor about the messed-up family in which she finds herself that I couldn’t help but be drawn in:
In April 1976 my uncle Silas on my daddy’s side got out of jail early after two years and five months of time served for arson. We welcomed him with dinners and back slaps, ignored the pink guilty splotches on his face, places on his skin that would never fully heal
That summer the family celebrates “the bicentennial for white people”—“Whose 200 years of freedom?” the narrator asks—and watches in surprise as their “tall and big-boned” Aunt Ginny, at 41, finds a husband in five-foot, round-bellied Gerald.
One of most memorable characters in the entire collection, Aunt Ginny, who is really the narrator’s cousin, gives her some plum advice:
“Do some things you want to do in your life. Hear?”
“Shut up, Aunt Ginny. God,” I said, hating the lessons I was sure came to Aunt Ginny from hard experience.
“I’m serious. Don’t wait around. Like sex. Do it as much as you can. I’m telling you the truth. One day, you’ll look over your lifetime of being a good girl and doing all the things you were supposed to and you’ll be as mad and crazy as I am.”
Whether they are young women trying to come to terms with their own love lives, kids caught in the middle of their parents’ love lives, black Jehovah’s Witnesses trolling the back roads of rural North Carolina, or a phone operator at a National Kennel Club dog registry, Watts’s characters make the best of what they have, which is not much. They are, as one character, Tash, puts it, “dirt-roaders,” living in “hick, nothing towns.”
In “Welcome to the City of Dreams,” Tash’s mother takes her and her little brother, Gary, away from their father in the back woods of Millsap, North Carolina, to an apartment complex in Raleigh, to start a new life. Tash and Gary are not impressed with the empty, generic apartment. And when, not surprisingly, the new life quickly reveals itself to include a new boyfriend, who shows up with a mismatched collection of lawn chairs, boxes of dishes, and a beat-up brown recliner, Tash thinks, “If you have never seen poverty it will scare you. Junk packed because it was hard-won. Still I resented Reggie his poverty. He had nothing. At least Daddy had furniture.”
In “If You Hit Randolph County, You’ve Gone Too Far,” another story that begins with a family member just released from jail, the narrator advises, “Always start with love. That’s what our grandmother says. Start with love, and when it fails, like it will, knock the hell out of the truth.” That might be an apt description of Watts’ attitude as she goes about writing her stories. Though I’m not convinced Watts—or her characters—really believe that love will fail. I think they just know how damned complicated it can be.
Rebecca Lee’s Bobcat and Other Stories is another collection that takes an unsentimental and uncompromising look at love, and just about everything else. This book I grabbed not entirely blindly, as I remembered having been impressed by Lee’s 2006 novel, The City Is a Rising Tide. And in some ways, I found the short story to be a better fit for Lee’s prose, providing focus for the sometimes wild rambles her characters find themselves in.
In the title story, “Bobcat,” the lawyer-narrator and her writer-husband, John, throw a dinner party at which various secrets begin to assert themselves beneath the surface of the smart—often smart-ass—conversation.
The guests include the narrator’s wise-cracking best friend Lizbet, who attended an unnamed writing program in Iowa with John; John’s agent Frances, whose intimate connection with him is an irritant to the narrator; Susan, another writer Frances represents, whose memoir, “Bobcat,” tells the story of having her arm ripped off by said beast; and a couple, Kitty and Ray Donner-Nilson, to whom John refers to behind their backs as the Donner-Blitzens. Just to make things interesting, Kitty Donner is a descendent of the infamous Donner family, who may have resorted to cannibalism in the late 1840s, during a harsh winter spent snowbound in the Sierra Nevada.
Lee handles the comic possibilities with aplomb:
“There was no cannibalism,” Kitty said. She knew what we were all thinking.
“What?” I blurted out. That was the main thing, the cannibalism.
“There’s no evidence in the fossil record.”
It was sort of disappointing, actually. Apparently the new thinking among some archeologists was that there wasn’t enough forensic evidence—knife marks on the bones, essentially—to support a conclusion of cannibalism.
“I still watch myself,” Ray said. “I watch my back.”
As they spar, they wait for various documents to arrive: Frances expects the manuscript of a new Salman Rushdie memoir to be delivered by courier at any moment, and the narrator is waiting for a legal decision regarding her Hmong immigrant client who refused to give his dying wife treatment he considered to be “Western voodoo.” The partygoers proceed through various deliciously complex dishes including a roast infused with rosemary, palm, olive and macademia oils; a trifle flavored with “anise, raspberry, and port, with a gingerbread base”; fortune cookies; mangoes.
There’s a breakneck quality to this story as it barrels through this evening jam-packed with lavish food, barely stated nuances and multilayered conversation. The end effect, for me, was to point out something my travelling was beginning to allude to as well: that no amount of distraction can ultimately hide the truth.
In the story “Min,” as unlikely as it may sound, an American woman, Sarah, ends up in Hong Kong, hired by her male friend’s father to find a wife for him. Coming upon Min, relaxing in a whirlpool at the end of his day, Sarah considers offering herself as his bride but realizes that “the hundreds of hours I had spent with Min had, by the mysterious alchemy of friendship, distilled out any romance, like the steam rising all around us now, leaving us pure, fast friends.” It’s interesting to watch as this realization leads Sarah to take her role as match-maker more seriously.
This story, too, is rich with detail and unforgettable food, such as a soup served at a monastery on the island of Lantau, that “looked like water but tasted like the ocean—salty, warm, the small a hint of every creature in the world, eel, fish, lizard, horse, human being—that had at one time passed through it.”
It occurs to me that this is what I want when I read: a concoction like this fictional soup that will fill me with the world. The stories in these two strong collections did just that.
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer. She has completed two volumes of The Leyden Portrait Project, a series that, through photographs and interviews, documents the lives of residents in her small town of Leyden, Massachusetts. She also covers writers and the visual arts for The Recorder, an award-winning newspaper in Greenfield, MA. She was recently awarded a two-week artist residency in the wild dunes near Provincetown, where she continued work on a novel as well as documented dune-shack living, using pen and paper and good, old-fashioned film.