Short Stories

By Paul Zakrzewski
Sunday, March 12, 2006

Taken together, these stories of men haunted by their mistakes and looking for second chances, burdened by the past but uncertain about the future, open a window on the contemporary male psyche. These characters aren't Richard Russo's relics, hanging on to their outmoded ways of life; nor are they John Updike's successful, philandering husbands. Rather, like Chuck Palahniuk's lost yuppies, they tend to pick up their fists -- or hit the road -- in search of authenticity.

On the Road

The young rappers, convicts and marginally employed drifters who populate Davy Rothbart's The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas (Touchstone; paperback, $12) are about the most amiable (if self-deluded) bunch of guys you could meet. After a while, the tales fall into a predictable pattern of physical impacts -- car crashes, broken bones or beatings -- but these collisions expose the heartache in the characters' lives. And I mean heartache: Rothbart is preoccupied with romantic turmoil; his characters seek out girl trouble the way Jack Kerouac once sought out the road. And like Kerouac's best novels, these stories are breezy and energetic dispatches from obscure corners of the country, complete with outlandish incidents, unlikely coincidences and meaning-of-life moments.

In the lengthy title story, a young couple driving through the Midwest surprises a boy perched on a surfboard thousands of miles from any ocean. His ensuing fall launches all manner of picaresque adventures, including a showdown with a bumbling cop and an encounter with a dying 3-year-old girl. Several of the stories in this collection feel like well told anecdotes, but this one provides a satisfying narrative. Rothbart may be one of those writers who needs space for his imagination and verbal energy to gel. "Elena" is about a lost soul who slides into brutality after he agrees to help a gang prey on truckers along the Texas-Mexico border. But the narrator cannot escape the pointless degradation of his life after he falls in love with a 14-year-old girl who lives in a local brothel. Elsewhere, the author doesn't push as much as he could, leaving the consequences of his characters' delusions unexplored. But in this bleak and beautiful story, Rothbart mines his material to heartbreaking effect.

Blows and Losses

By contrast, the guys in Tod Goldberg's Simplify (OV Books; paperback, $14.99) are too busy reeling from various blows -- terminally ill fathers, suicidal sisters, lost brothers -- to reinvent themselves. Many of these stories slide off in surreal directions as they map their characters' psychic turmoil. In "Comeback Special," a man whose wife has left him for his best friend finds that a photo of Elvis (from his 1968 comeback concert) cries blood and even changes costumes. The ensuing media circus helps the story maintain its amusing tone, but it's not grounded enough in the man's life to have much effect on the reader.

Goldberg takes similar risks in other stories, with mixed results. The narrator of "The Distance Between Us," who slowly reveals that his misunderstood brother was a serial killer, is genuinely affecting in his grief, but the premise ends up feeling far-fetched.

Goldberg's best stories are told in retrospect, as if the narrators need psychic distance to fashion their memories in the most potent form. My favorite is "The Living End," a haunting account of the summer of 1973, when the narrator's older brother returns from Vietnam with strange scrapes and bruises; the story becomes a mystery that involves the abduction of a Native American girl across the street. This story has a stable nuclear family at its center -- not stable enough, however, to stave off the enormous forces that conspire to destroy its children.

Hoops and Fisticuffs

The stories in Craig Davidson's Rust and Bone (Norton, $23.95) confine themselves to a more traditional aspect of the male psyche. Davidson's hard-edged tone and emphasis on physical detail aspire to the style of early Hemingway, while his knowledge of boxing and pharmaceuticals calls to mind contemporary masters like Thom Jones. But there's little of those writers' narrative compression or obliquely suggestive detail here; rather, many of the plots seem to spiral out of control. And these violent, sometimes bizarre stories of men trying to overcome past tragedies are not for the faint of heart: Davidson writes horror under a pseudonym, and here he doesn't shy away from the grotesque. Some of the action -- beatings, dog fights -- borders on the lurid.

In "The Rifleman," an alcoholic father projects his thwarted ambitions onto his estranged son, a talented high school basketball player, but the story never gets beyond a cramped, shallow depiction of the two. Davidson isn't particularly interested in opening up the nuances of relationships, which may be why the twisted couple in "A Mean Utility" -- an advertising executive who fights pit bulls and a nurse willing to ply her trade ringside -- seems unbelievable. Shouldn't such a pairing be the starting point and not the punch line to a story? Nonetheless, Davidson's writing is powerfully visceral, especially when describing a fight. Indeed, the best stories here focus on boxers. The haunting "Life in the Flesh" stays with you in part because the author's normally sprawling storytelling is pulled together by the tragedy of a fighter who once killed a man in the ring. ยท

Paul Zakrzewski, the editor of "Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge," writes regularly for the Boston Globe and the Forward.

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