Despite all the yap these days about the supposed death of the short story, few seem to care about its gangly, awkward -- yet strangely beautiful -- big brother, the novella. What would our literary heritage look like without "The Pearl" or "The Picture of Dorian Gray"? Yet the novella appears to be nearing extinction, a victim of marketing forces unable to decide where to shelve them at your local bookstore. But that's not the only reason to appreciate Owen King's debut, We're All in This Together: A Novella and Stories (Bloomsbury, $23.95).
Reading each of these diverse stories provokes a cringe reflex. There's tremendous violence here, occasionally served with a side of humor, such as when the teenage narrator of the title tale decides to exact revenge on his mother's new lover. "The notion that there was anything cruel about teaching my prospective stepfather's dogs to fetch their own feces," he tells us, "or that there was something more than a little demented about the trouble that I had gone to . . . did occur to me at a few odd moments."
Some of these stories are gruesome, but they are always original. In "Wonders," set during the earliest days of baseball's integration, we derive some sick satisfaction from seeing a racist heckler beaten mercilessly by the local nine. And the best of the bunch, "Frozen Animals," is about a troubled dentist summoned to a remote cabin during a blizzard and possibly -- it's not all that clear amid his abuse of booze and narcotics -- gang-raped by nasty backwoods trappers.
King possesses a rare understanding of the macabre side of our workaday lives. He may one day take over the family franchise from his father, Stephen King, but We're All in This Together has enough moments of crystalline insight into human folly to prove he's finding a voice and an artistic sensibility all his own.
The Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto is also doing her part to keep the novella tradition alive. Her exciting, diminutive new book, Hardboiled & Hard Luck (Grove, $21, translated by Michael Emmerich), features two of them bound together. Each digs deeper than the typical short story, yet neither requires a novel's time commitment.
"Hardboiled" is actually a love story, albeit a spooky one set on "the sort of day when people in the old days talked about seeing sneaky creatures like mujina. Somehow the air feels heavy, and the night is darker than usual." While hiking alone through the mountains, a young woman comes upon a strange little shrine and begins to feel acutely uneasy. Tired and hungry, she gets to her hotel and settles into the bath before realizing that it's the one-year anniversary of her lover's death in a fire. The arrival of a mysterious guest and several dreams make the night all the more unsettling.
"Hard Luck" also features a young woman forced to deal with the death of a loved one. In this case, it's a comatose sister, Kuni, who "suffered a cerebral hemorrhage . . . after she stayed up several nights in a row preparing a manual for the person who was going to take over her job when she quit to get married." During her regular hospital visits, our narrator strikes up an unlikely friendship with Sakai, the eccentric brother of Kuni's one-time fiance. Together, they attempt to make some sense of the tragedy uniting them. Despite the somber nature of the subject matter, these are not depressing stories; Yoshimoto manages to find hope amid her characters' sadness. Taken together, these two novellas form a sparkling book.
Reviewed by Andrew Ervin, a writer and critic in Champaign, Ill.