Reviews of short stories by Sam Shepard, Richard Bausch, Jabari Asim, Ron Rash

By Michael Lindgren
Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A guide to new collections from some of fiction's top authors.

Of the many baneful side effects of upheavals both recent and gradual in the book industry, possibly none is more insidious than the leaching of regional voice from contemporary literature. As publishers rush to convert prose into bit streams, and as readers across the country melt into an invisible mass of anonymous consumers, the local peculiarities of history, language, culture and community fade. The inevitable result is writers who increasingly seem to come from . . . nowhere, really. It is a relief, then, to encounter four new collections of short fiction whose power stems in no small part from their authentic sense of place.

Sam Shepard, of course, is by now thoroughly identified with the American West. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and Oscar-nominated actor adds to his mystique with Day Out of Days (Knopf, $25.95), a collection that combines the surreal with the gritty, the poetic with the mundane. Shepard's West is a liar's paradise of motel rooms, roadhouses, highways, ghost towns and diners, populated by cowboys, drug addicts, desperate lovers, insomniacs and other assorted weirdos and misfits. Although a few of the less successful entries have conventional short story structures, most of the book is a pastiche of fractured interior monologues, snatches of verse -- rather pedestrian verse, at that -- conversations set out in playlike dialogue, and impressionistic sketches of odd tableaux and faded reminiscences. Amid the kaleidoscope of genres, some recurrent themes and characters begin to emerge: a talking decapitated head, an aging couple trapped in an episodic lovers' quarrel, a road-tripping trio strung out on fatigue and hallucinogens, all shot through with unremitting anomie. The effect is somehow disorienting and fascinating, tedious and hypnotic.

There's an astonishing moment near the end of Richard Bausch's story "One Hour in the History of Love." The female half of an unhappy couple glances at her counterpart, "and in the sudden brightness of not having her sunglasses on, her eyes play a trick on her: his face has taken on an aspect of sharp-jawed leering, the cigarette smoke escaping from the corners of his crookedly grinning mouth. . . . She has a flash of thinking about depictions of the devil." This piercing epiphany is the culmination of a cunning roundelay depicting the contemporary landscape of romantic love as a purgatory of selfishness and disconnection. "One Hour" and the austere title story are the best of Something Is Out There (Knopf, $25.95), much of which is set in the genteel precincts of Memphis. Those two exceptions aside, however, Bausch's eighth collection offers cautious exercises in "craft," with stories featuring aggressively quotidian protagonists and relentlessly average concerns -- adultery, middle-class envy -- sketched out in careful prose, inevitably ending in a faux-portentous moment of ambiguity.

Traveling 300 miles upriver and three or four decades back in time plunks you straight down in the middle of Jabari Asim's charming if somewhat slight A Taste of Honey (Broadway; paperback, $13). The time is 1967; the locale, black St. Louis, lightly camouflaged here as "Gateway City." Revolution may be in the air, but young Crispus Jones has other concerns: his unruly hair, for example, which mandates weekly subjection to the painful ministrations of his stern grandmother. In 18 brief, interconnected vignettes, which with their conversational pacing and good humor read more like the chapters of a coming-of-age story than the usual short-fiction grab bag of discrete narratives, Asim, a former deputy editor of Book World, nails the grain and flow of a community with "energy older than pain and stronger than time." Despite the serious themes of police brutality and institutional racism, these tales are characterized by a winning lightness of touch and tone -- a fundamental generosity of spirit, dusted with nostalgia -- that make his first book of fiction for adults go down sweetly indeed.

Another 600 miles, this time south and east, and you're in Ron Rash territory. A slender set of spare and menacing depictions of the unforgiving ways of life in rural Appalachia, Burning Bright (Ecco, $22.99) finds a narrow sweet spot between Raymond Carver's minimalism and William Faulkner's Gothic. In clipped, oblique language, Rash's stories depict lives unhinged by poverty and hard living. If they sometimes seem too atmospheric to have real weight, they nonetheless evoke a subculture and history that stretch from the present day back to the end of the Civil War (the final story, "Lincolnites," is like a nightmare reprise of a famous scene in "Gone With the Wind"). Rash gets deep inside the peculiar psychology and emotional idiosyncrasies of the denizens of the mountain South in all their pride, superstition and propensity for sudden violence. Come to think of it, these days those qualities hardly seem exclusive to Appalachia. But then, that is a story in its own right.

Lindgren is a poet and musician who divides his time between Manhattan and Pennsylvania.

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