This short volume of new fiction is probably the best compilation of stories I have yet to read. While it only has five stories, each is so masterfully crafted that it’s worth the $10 cover price. Originally published by the University of Texas Press, American Short Fiction is now published by Badgerdog Literary Publishing in Austin, Texas.
Mathew Baker’s “The Wrong Chemicals” was by far the most unique in the collection. At first it seems like a weird narrative with a science fiction philosophy running throughout, but it quickly becomes much more than that. It begins with the “birth” of a man in a basement. Then it goes backwards, as the world in this story goes in reverse. Bombs give life, people are born in cemeteries, and garbage is pulled from the landfills to create cities. Baker does some really interesting things with this premise, adding a dash of social commentary on America (the narrator’s mother tells: “We’ve been sending soldiers overseas for centuries, bringing Libyans to life, Iraqis, Afghanis, pulling bullets from their bodies.” )
The story itself is a rather simple one, a man is unemployed and depressed, but this device Baker uses makes the story into a mystery with a surprising ending.
“Marie Tells All” by Anne Claycomb is a fun (yet troubling) romp through the eyes of a girl who was on a fictional Real World type show called Rock’n Romance. Marie and Teena are twins whose father recently died and decide to go on the show to win the heart of a rockstar they used to have crushes on as teenagers. Marie tells us about what it was “really” like on the show and what wasn’t aired on the episode she presumes we saw.
Michael Fauver’s “Fancier” is about two men who own theaters across the street from each other. Once rivals, now they are just awkward acquaintances with closed businesses. The story isn’t about the theaters so much as it is about the strange relationship between the two men. This was a good story, as they all were, but probably my least favorite. It was also the shortest, merely giving us a snapshot of the men, their relationship, and their lives in those few days.
“Time Apart Together” by Anthony Varallo is another strange story about a college drop out who works as a phone salesman for Great Bank America and has a girlfriend named Ursula he can’t shake. What is interesting is that the narrator makes it clear that he doesn’t care about Ursula and just wants to break up with her, yet he defines everything in his life by her as if she is a point in time he can base everything by. For example: “My parents separated the year I started dating Ursula…”, “I dropped out of college a few months after I started dating Ursula.”
What gives this otherwise humdrum story a lift is that Ursula became interested in him because he looked identical to her ex-boyfriend, Kevin, who she in turn bases her life around.
“The Steam Room” by Shannon Cain is about the Mayor of New York’s wife, Helen, and what happens when she is found masturbating in a public steam room by two teenage girls that go to school with her daughter. In the aftermath of the scandal, Helen is ostracized by parts of her community, embraced by others, and has some enlightening conversations with her children. It’s a great story with quite a few elements, the most important of which is how she relates to her teenage daughter.