IN THESE ACCELERATED TIMES, instant gratification appears to be a compelling goal. Fastfood chains proliferate and half-time television sitcoms flourish. Anything that can be consumed in a hurry and without much effort is in popular demand. Anything, that is, but the short story.
As everyone interested knows, the market for short fiction has diminsihed considerably during recent years. Good little literary magazines (American Review and Transatlantic Review , to name just two) are disappearing, and the large, surviving slicks offer limited space to stories. I find myself part of a small but ardent audience that still believes less is often more, and that the immediate satisfaction of a fine short story lasts and resonates. It is pleasurable to note that at least one commercial publisher has enough confidence in the form to give us two new collections of short stories in one season.
Joanne Greenberg has published other story collections, but she is best known for her novels, particularly I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (published under the pseudonym Hannah Green). The stories in High Crimes and Misdemeanors have a strong connecting theme -- spirtual questing and questioning. Men and women consider not only the existence of a deity, but their own existential purpose, their own capacities for good and evil. Greenberg pursues this theme with startling invention and with an effective blend of mischief and melancholy. In the opening story, "Certain Distant Suns," a middle-aged woman, disbelieving in gravity, finds herself levitating against her will. As weightless as a moon-walker, she hovers over the despised mess in her once-immaculate kichen and weeps. It was God she abandoned before gravity, and now a rabbi who appears mysteriously on her disconnected television set (she's given up electricity, too) initiates a theological debate.
In "Fight Pattern," a temporarily earthbound malakh (angel) longs for the "appetites and surprises" in the life of his human companion, Ben. "Don't envy us,'" Ben advises. "We are usually very lonely.'" And adds later, our minds to a constant bombardment of thoughts and wishes, good and bad, fantasies, old songs, bad jokes? How can you want that? It isn't free will, it's free whim !" Eventually the malakh spreads his wings and escapes such mortal misery.
Characters in other stories work their magic, too, against the limits of their condition. Friends try to buy extra time from the CIA for a dying rabbi, and a woman adds mystical ingredients to a cake so that her frail, elderly aunts will be fortified against neighborhood crime. The rabbi appears to get better, and the aunts' terror is reduced to fear and then blooms into a fearless power. The stories bloom, too, in Joanne Greenberg's capable hands. As in all good friction, there are no easy resolutions and no moralizing. But the reader's beliefs and imagination are vigorously stirred.
Patricia Zelver offers her skewed vision of the world in A Man of Middle Age and Twelve Stories . Sometimes she does so with only a few brief and humorous strokes. In a very short story called "Landmarks," a seemingly benign middle-aged couple who've stopped at a gas station to have their car refueled slowly unleash their mutal rage. After a series of vicious verbal attacks on one another, they simply drive away, cheerily leaving the confused but neutral attendant. This may be a very original metaphor for marriage counseling.
In the longer, title piece, the characters are portrayed in all their mundane and idiosyncratic agonies. Sam Winkle, a decent middle-aged man, is beset with problems involving his wife, his daughter, his job, and even his landscape when a new neighbor named Schultz builds an architectural monstrosity next door. Winkle's disappointments mount. He is mugged at 57 by the Senior Citizen Bandit. His daughter depletes his funds and then joyfully announces an unwed pregnancy. Schultz and his family continue in their aggravating way of life. At last Winkle comes to terms with his disillusionment and with the concrete losses of aging itself through a single gesture toward/against his maddening neighbor.
I liked best a story called "A Special Occasion," in which an old man is dying after a third stroke. He's also suffering from the glib and familiar denial of his situation by his relatives and his nurse. When he tries to make practical arrangements for his funeral, he's put off with promises of restored health. Finally he receives the solace he desires from the candid acceptance of his dying by his favorite grandchild, an 8-year-old girl. She wants to know if its scary, and she also asks if she can inherit his skeleton, once the skin falls off, so she can look at it to remember him, and to show her friends. He turns her request down but retains her affection. "If you're still alive, tomorrow, after school, I'll come back,'" the child tells him, and he sleeps exceptionally well that night, Zelver writes with wit and liveliness and with a generous heart.