Archive » July 20, 2006
By Shelly Lowenkopf
1. Short stories are intended to be read in one sitting.
2. If it is more than 40 manuscript pages in length, it probably isn’t a short story.
3. Unless you are Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Annie Proulx or William Trevor, it is probably not a good idea to narrate a short story from more than one point of view.
4. Since approximately 1960, short stories do not build toward a one-sentence ironical conclusion.
5. Since approximately 1960, it has become increasingly difficult to describe which elements – plot, for instance – should be included in a short story.
6. Since about 1975, short stories are frequently told in the present tense.
Lee K. Abbott undoubtedly knows these things about short stories – and a good many more. Indeed, he professes creative writing at Ohio State University and he’s written six earlier collections of short fiction. He also spends time in rural New Mexico, of which he writes as though it is a place where we ought to be if we wish to observe at close hand the true meaning behind the quest of restless adults, resentful youngsters, and older sorts – crabby, successful or failed middle-aged sorts – whose dreams have been sun-bleached in the relentless openness of space.
His latest collection, from Norton, is “All Things, All at Once,” a gathering of 24 ventures, as crowded, different, and comedic as open house signs spread about Santa Barbara on a three-day weekend. Each story asks you to accept, then sympathize with concepts and characters you might not readily like at first blush – not until Abbott has his way with them and with you.
How does he do this?
After you’ve read the first two stories, “Ninety Nights on Mercury” and “As Fate Would Have it,” you wonder whether you have somehow stepped into the wrong party at a banquet hall and gotten apprehended by someone’s uncle, who swears he knows you and drapes his arm over your shoulder, effectively blocking your exit, while wondering in a loud voice, where the hell you’ve been keeping yourself. Trouble is, by this time, one of the other party revelers looks familiar and even waves in your direction.
What you are is stuck, every bit as stuck as you’d be if the guy with his arm over your shoulder asks whether you’d kindly sit with grandma here, a pleasant-but-dazed looking woman, while he fetches her a glass of juice.
It is not so much a thing of the stories having wild, outrageous plots, although there are a few of these, such as “The Talk Between Worms,” in which the father of the narrator sees an event in the New Mexico desert that will change his life and the life of his son. Nor does it have a good deal to do with the Ohio university background of “The Eldest of Things,” in which Richard Mozer, a professor of literature, advances on Elaine Winston, a first-year assistant professor, with approaches to love that will send the two of them into orbit and, eventually, her to the University of Florida.
It is, in a word, voice. Lee K. Abbott, very much a writer of voice, seems constrained from writing ordinary sentences, the more simple-though-content-bearing sentences of a minimalist such as Raymond Carver. As he does to language, so, gentle reader, do you do to a tea bag, swirling it, possibly even garroting it with its own string to extract the essence. Far from venturing into magical realism or pseudo-fantasy, Abbott begins with his characters seemingly as normal as we readers could stand them without nodding off to boredom.
Neither Deming’s best golfer nor its worst, Mr. Dillon Ripley was, as the six thousand of us in these deserts nor realize, its most ardent, having taken to the sport as those in the big world we read about have taken to drink or narcotics. Almost daily, you’d see him on the practice tee – elbows, knees, and rump in riot – his fat man’s swing a torment of expectation and gloom. With him also would be Allie Martin, our resident professional, and together, hip to hip, faces shaded against the fierce sunlight we’re famous for, hair flying in breezes, they’d stare down the range, as if out there, waiting as destiny is said to wait, stood neither riches nor simple happiness, but Ripley himself, slender and tanned and strong as iron, a hero wise and blessed as are those from blind Homer.
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