If a lot of recent fiction is inward-looking, safe, middle-class and domestic, then these three collections provide a bracing antidote. All of them are concerned with outcasts and loners, the has-beens and never-weres, the powerless and underprivileged, territory that often is left unexplored by the cosmopolitan, bicoastal writers who dominate the literary landscape. This is fiction taken straight, with no chaser.
Sherman Alexie’s Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories (Grove, $27) is a showcase of one of the foremost Native American writers of his generation. These stories are tough, warmhearted, rowdy and moving. Their protagonists usually are members of the Spokane tribe of northwestern America, and Alexie toys with the construct of ethnic identity in nuanced, often funny ways. A character in “War Dances” says, “My dad started, like, this new Indian tradition. He says it’s a thousand years old. But . . . he just made it up to impress himself.” Others find only sadness and betrayal in their heritage, such as when the protagonist of “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” asks, “Whatever happened to the tribal ties, the sense of community? The only real thing he shared with anybody was a bottle and broken dreams.” Alexie’s achievement here is his depiction of the tangled complexities of race — that great open secret of American life — in an undidactic and utterly natural way. And of course, like all great writing on race, these stories are really on being human, about how “our contentment was always running only slightly ahead of our dissatisfaction.”
The characters who populate Steven Barthelme’s quirky set of stories Hush Hush (Melville House; paperback, $16.95) are just as damaged and uncertain as Alexie’s wounded warriors, yet their confusion and disenchantment are sketched in a wry, bemused tone. Like his late, more celebrated brother Donald, Barthelme works in a broadly minimalist zone, characterized by a deadpan hyperrealism spiked with sardonic humor (“She was a nice wife, even liked me for a while,” begins “In the Rain”). There’s a touch of Raymond Carver’s forlorn poetry in the voices of Barthelme’s feckless men — smart, sensitive misfits who are psychically unequipped for the “easy, pleasant life” and its “sensation of walking around in an extra skin.” Instead, they work on cars, they gamble, they drink, they walk out on their wives, they transfer their affections onto their cats. The stories’ cumulative effect is curiously weightless. They have an ethereal quality to them, as if they were dreamed or summoned rather than written. The result is a voice that is distinctive, if opaque, and refreshingly original.
Which brings us to the juggernaut, the force of nature that is Joyce Carol Oates, and her new collection of stories, Black Dahlia & White Rose (Ecco, $24.99). By now, the Oatesean vision and fictional tactics — the knee-buckling violence, the garish accoutrements of lower-class life, the ventriloquist’s way with voice — are deeply embedded in our collective literary consciousness. Here she continues to work her magic at a perhaps slightly lesser level, although several of these stories are knockouts, as usual, and all are at least interesting. The title story depicts the notorious 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, from the inside, by giving the narrative over to a not-yet-famous Marilyn Monroe. This ground has been pretty well raked over, fictionally speaking, yet Oates finds something new within the sticky intersection of sex, psychopathy, Hollywood and movie glamour, a sense of pathos that is missing from more lurid accounts. That this slight, frail-looking woman of unassuming roots and with a taste for mayhem should, through the force of her imagination, ascend to the pinnacle of American letters seems right and fitting. It’s a very American sort of triumph, this locating of meaning in the humble and quotidian, with a rough democratic vigor to it. Oates knows that — in the words of one of her sin-haunted protagonists — “of all miracles, none is more daunting than normal.”
Lindgren is a poet and musician who divides his time between New York City and Pennsylvania.