To make a long story short, Jhumpa Lahiri scored a Pulitzer Prize last year for Interpreter of Maladies, the first time a short-story collection won the fiction prize in several years; meanwhile, recent compilations by the likes of George Saunders and Gish Jen have had folks gabbing about the rebirth of the form. The new year brings collections from two bona fide masters of the genre, Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie — a twin reminder that the boom is, most correctly, a re-re-re-renaissance.
The occasion for Carver’s Call If You Need Me: The Uncollected Fiction and Other Prose is the discovery of five small, good things among the author’s papers in 1999, 11 years after his death. ”Kindling” is the one most typical of both his thematic fixations (blue collars, yellow livers, the white noise of alienation) and his storytelling genius (the beautiful economy of detail and deceptive complexity of structure). It’s August — it’s often still and stifling August in Carver’s imagination — and the protagonist, Myers, has just done his four weeks at a rehab clinic. Needing to flee somewhere, he rents a room in the country and proceeds to sit around the house all day blankly. Then — intrigued by a load of wood delivered to his landlord’s backyard and as engaged by the purity of good labor as any Hemingway hero — Myers chops logs for two days straight, then decides to move on, and showers and goes to sleep in his boarding-room bed one last time.
Sweat, fear, nomadic desperation — Carver. Likewise, ”Dreams,” a gem about the impact of a next-door nightmare, showcases his talent for forging domestic myths. The title story, ”What Would You Like to See?,” and ”Vandals” each slyly explore marital tension by sliding between memory and desire. And even though the themes and images on display here anticipate those of classics already in the canon, the stories still stand up in their own right.
But let the buyer beware: The 200 pages that follow the newfound material must be classified as padding. Most of the ”other prose” here has appeared in collections before, and some of it shouldn’t have appeared anywhere ever — vacant book reviews, regurgitated advice, seven pages of an abandoned novel, lazy essays, some really juvenile juvenilia, plus a hokey commencement speech. For Carver experts, this stuff is redundant; for casual fans, it’s a nuisance. Will he please be quiet, please?
Ann Beattie’s characters endure just as much pointlessness and blind confusion as Carver’s, but it’s often a slightly swanker weariness. Many of her first-person narrators speak in the lunchtime tone of a second wife downing her third drink. They’re just as messed up, but instead of waiting on tables and getting shipped off to the drying-out facility, they sell real estate and go to analysis. Thus, in ”The Women of This World,” one of the 11 stories in Perfect Recall, a woman’s neurosis about her food processor gives way to anxiety about the ”passive-aggressive” behavior of her stepfather-in-law during pre-Thanksgiving dinner — all of which dissolves when, having left the house to cool off, she stumbles upon a neighbor dead at home and experiences an attack of vertigo: ”The room was quivering, as if the walls, themselves, were about to slope into italics.”
In her best work, Beattie swings lean declarative sentences like that one around and whips up delicious paragraphs, half-clinical and half-comical, and her comedy manages the trick of being both absurd and affecting. The title story, perhaps the best, is a loony family saga focusing on an eccentric uncle who gets celebrated as a landmark outsider artist for decorating old tires with kitschy trinkets. Some of the stories clock in at about 50 pages, and it’s easy to imagine how — fleshed-out fully, stripped of their sometimes tedious whimsy, and beefed up with Beattie’s dry wit — they’d be more successful as novellas. For Beattie, as for Carver, the magic is in the spare details, and the short story is in the very shortness. Call If You Need Me: B- Perfect Recall: B+
Call If You Need Me
BY RAYMOND CARVER
BY ANN BEATTIE