SHORT AND SWEET

The summer months’ bumper crop of books – you might even say the zucchini of published titles – used to be mystery and suspense. If you didn’t really care whodunit, your only recourse was to take up with a classic, some large relic from the past, a “Middlemarch” or “War and Peace.” Should those titles and their subjects seem too remote, your works from the middle period of the last century, titles such as “Catch-22” or “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” are available, often in modestly priced reprints.

Used to be.

Mystery and suspense titles are being shoved back to the mystery and suspense shelves. The new kids on the block, seemingly even more plentiful than romances, are short story collections, which now get the front tables. There is, for example, “Twilight of the Super Heroes” by Deborah Eisenberg, from Simon and Schuster, “Gallatin Canyon” by Thomas McGuane, from Random House, and from the same publisher, Bobbie Ann Mason’s “Nancy Culpepper.” Jennifer Weiner has “The Guy Not Taken,” Joyce Carol Oates has “High Lonesome” available, George Saunders is represented with “In Persuasion Nation,” and remarkable Antonya Nelson has “Some Fun.” “The Stories of Mary Gordon” is forthcoming from Pantheon in early October.

To be sure, there are others, but I’ve not only made my point, I have two books set aside for my next column that come from a pair of authors who have worked together on a noted TV series.

The authors of both books under review this time are relative unknowns. Alix Ohlin has a well-reviewed novel to her credit, but now before us from Knopf is her collection, “Babylon,” subtitled “and other stories.” Her work brings notable questions to mind. What, for instance, do we want from a short story? Why are short stories seeming to emerge with greater popularity (and less guile)? Has the short story become the MTV of fiction? Is the short story a fast track to literature?

“Babylon” indirectly answers all these questions with robust positivism while going on to answer yet others with a greater, more direct emphasis. The stories set forth in this volume are meant to demonstrate the range, emotional versatility, and perception of the author. They do – every one of them.

Reading “Babylon” is very much of a piece with being deposited inside a darkened house at midnight, armed with a book of matches. “Simple Exercises for the Beginning Student,” for example sets off the entire experience of piano lessons in a memorable and unanticipated vision. “You Are Here” reminds us not only of the store directories at malls but of the growth progress of a young woman during her first year away from home, studying art at a university and fending off threats from her father.

The title story, “Babylon,” takes a nerdy man in his thirties to a wedding where he meets Astrid, who loves to cook and who becomes the love of his life. Except. Except that she can’t cook, isn’t named Astrid, and had crashed the wedding reception.

One of the early events in “An Analysis of Some Troublesome Recent Behavior” comes when a university researcher whose major focus is on the Trinidadian guppy delivers a spirited right hook to the jaw of the academic who occupies the next office, sending that individual to the hospital.

I thought Catherine Ryan Hyde had a secure lock on short stories involving dogs, but with “In Trouble with the Dutchman” Alex Ohlin serves notice of yet another remarkable view. “I’d met the Dutchman just before Phil and I got engaged,” Ellen narrates, explaining with care how, even though she loved – and still loves Phil – “my whole skin registered his presence.” Being in trouble with the Dutchman has become her code expression for feeling the electricity of attraction to another person, an attraction that drives this sad, frenzied, knowing narrative to explosive awareness. “If you take one step from that person [who loves you], even just one step,” Ellen realizes, “he knows. He can’t stop it, but he knows.”

In single-author story collections, it used to be you counted yourself with value received if two or three out of the lot resonated for you. “Babylon” resonates from page to page, the light of insight and awareness flaring up with sudden, breathtaking surprise as you say ‘yes’ to understandings you did not realize you had.

Ben Fountain’s “Brief Encounters with Che Guevara” from Ecco presents more of a thematic approach to the short story. All his narrators evolve to a place where a moral decision of some consequence is required. Invariably, they make what many of us would consider the correct one – and hang the consequences. Just as invariably, and often with a wry or ironic humor, Fountain demonstrates how much human behavior is motivated by self-interest, with a focus on immediate profit.

The title story called out to me from the pages of Shenandoah, one of the better literary journals. I awaited its appearance in book form with pleasure. This story is saved for the final position, more often than not the showcase of the collection, although the first story, “Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera,” is stunning in its implications.

An American ornithologist in the Columbian rainforest, on the trail of some rare parrotlets, has found material that will surely bring in more grant money as well as a prestigious publication. Unfortunately, he is taken hostage by a group of revolutionaries who now attempt to hold him for ransom. Quickly, all too quickly, John Blair, Ph.D. candidate, comes to see that the revolution is being run as though it were a graduate project for an MBA program.

“The Good Ones Are Already Taken” presents unique crossroads to the wife of a Special Forces officer who has just returned home from Haiti and now has a confession to make. His confession is quite a bit more than another woman, requiring Melissa to make choices that will forever define her life.

Ben Fountain’s stories are set in many of the places in the world where the lines between good and evil have been bombed out, betrayed, or sold for money that seems to have arrived from the shadowy worlds of big businesses and hidden agendas. The moral landscape is often blighted, yet some men and women are able to negotiate their way through with some semblance of a saving grace.