Book Review

Essential Art

Though classic short stories are taught in schools and universities, and our greatest contemporary short fiction author, Alice Munro, won the Nobel Prize for Literature (2013), in the commercial publishing world of today, short story collections are thought to be unpopular with readers. I once asked a literary agent if she represented short stories. Silently, she shook her head and widened her eyes as if I’d given her a fright. Another time I was told by an agent that yes, she would represent a short story collection “if it’s a novel.” Nevertheless, fine short story collections do make their way into print, be it through an independent press or a commercial publisher, because stories, though leaner, can be more compelling than novels. To quote William Trevor, the late Irish author of both short stories and novels,


If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story is an Impressionist painting. It should be an explosion of truth. Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more. It is concerned with the total exclusion of meaninglessness. Life, on the other hand, is meaningless most of the time. The novel imitates life, where the short story is bony, and cannot wander. It is essential art.


I adore short stories, reading them and writing them, so imagine my delight when I was shown to a shelf of story collections at the Hudson Review office and asked to choose a number to review. I took a good chunk, read each collection with interest, and was intoxicated by my small power to decide which to review.

Mothers and the Motherland shadow the lives of daughters, mothers, and wives in Dionne Irving’s The Islands,[1] a debut collection that reveals the dilemmas facing the American-born children of immigrant Jamaican families. Brought up to adhere to a rigid code of hard work and good manners, these young women can never quite free themselves of their Jamaican identity and wonder if indeed they want to. In “Some People,” Kerry, a woman living in suburban New Jersey, reluctantly gives a dinner party at the behest of Lydia, the head of her daughter’s private school. “I just love making new mommy-friends who might have experience with other parts of the world,” Lydia says to Kerry. “I’m not from another part of the world,” Kerry says. “I’m American.” Kerry thinks of herself as what her mother calls “counterfeit Jamaican,” having never spent more than a month at a time on the island, yet she serves her guests—including buffer friends imported from the city—a Jamaican dinner of her mother’s curried goat stew. Later, when a guest makes a derogatory remark about black people, she says, “Not you, of course,” to Kerry, who has long understood with a certain amount of dismay that she is thought of as “just black” in America. The story is fraught yet comedic; the cluelessness of the white guests gives it a satisfying bite.

Irving’s stories expertly seesaw between humorous and achingly sad. She is at her best when writing about the vagaries of married life as she does in “Florida Lives.” A young couple, he from a wealthy American family, she Jamaican-American, relocate from San Francisco to Florida to make a fresh start, moving into a house next door to a “trashy” couple. The protagonists’ marriage is strengthened by their common disapproval of the neighbors, but when the neighbors abruptly move away, the couple slips into a bickering funk while their house is infested with bats. An interesting aspect to “Some People” and “Florida Lives” is the narrators, both women, don’t work and don’t do much around the house. Their idleness, which would be an anathema to their mothers, is a source of confusion and shame.

I mean it as a compliment when I say many of the stories in The Islands are disturbing. Shame and alienation are the baggage Irving’s characters carry. Some are entitled, living the American dream, while others scrape by or are haunted by loss. “All-Inclusive” is a gorgeously dark story. In an ironic switch, Anaya, a Los Angeles model-slash-waitress and the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, meets a white man known as The Poet who is from Jamaica. Anaya becomes The Poet’s mistress, and they travel the world together. He is rich, she is poor; he is married, she is not. She revels in being able to “demand drinks, not deliver them,” and “To call for a bed to be turned down.” Anaya hasn’t visited Jamaica since she was a child, and her memories of the place are unpleasant. When she and The Poet take a trip to an all-inclusive resort on the island, Anaya wonders, had she been born and raised in Jamaica, if she would be doing the bidding of thoughtless white tourists, turning down their beds at night. She is ashamed and humbled by being waited on by people like herself and her family, many of whom still live on the island; that she is being willingly used by a white man who disgusts her is a truth she can’t admit to herself until he flat-out tells her. There are no happy endings in The Islands, and redemption is just out of reach. Its characters walk a tightrope between past and present realities.

The world falls away as Kathleen Alcott’s stories unfold in her sublime collection, Emergency.[2] The smallest moment, the briefest description, the single telling detail are given the attention a stonecutter would give a gem. Alcott’s gift is breathtaking.

The stories take their time but never feel slow and are mesmerizing, in part, because there is very little dialogue to break the spell of the narrative. Alcott’s voice is so sure I felt I intimately knew that profligate woman and that old musician, and the thirty-four-year-old man who looked “like someone who could ruin a marriage in under a week.” That description is one of dozens that beguiled me, revealing so much in so little with Alcott’s gimlet eye.

The title story is a knockout. It’s told in first person plural, inviting the reader to join a nameless chorus of friends who recount, and judge, the actions of a newly divorced woman, Helen. “Whether she passed for a teenager, the summer she was thirty and the divorce went through, was not our concern,” it begins. While renting a house in Maine, Helen attracts the attention of a group of teenage boys at a river where she swims. At first, she ignores them, makes a point of it (“to be fair, she swam elsewhere the next day,” the chorus chimes) yet eventually gives her phone number to one particularly flirtatious boy who invites her to his parents’ house for a party. There she plays Ping-Pong with the other boys and is given a tour of the house; she and the boy have sex in his bedroom before his parents arrive and are shocked to recognize that Helen is an adult. “Her age, she might have realized then, had never belonged to her: she’d been younger or older, the thing by which somebody else felt a sense of himself.”

Some women in Emergency find themselves caught up with men they dislike, even fear. One woman is pregnant with the child of a man whom she sees treating a toddler roughly. Another woman moves into a new apartment with her lover only to hear him confess that he has abused a former girlfriend. Men aren’t nice in these stories, and the women are acutely conflicted. There is a frisson of danger, trouble barely averted.

I hadn’t yet read any fiction set in the pandemic until Alcott’s story, “A World Without Men,” in which she handles Covid as almost an aside; I appreciated her light touch with this unfortunately heavy subject. Shirley and Frankie, a pair of aging lounge musicians, are caught by surprise when the bar in which they perform is shuttered during lockdown. Maintaining their hair color and practicing their act as if life will resume any day—Shirley gives it two weeks tops—they are stuck with each other with nothing to do for the first time in their lives. Frankie lets his side down first by refusing to dye his hair properly so that he “looked like some animal removed from its native environment, the victim of strange weather, ready to consider anything as food.” While mourning their livelihood, they seem strangely unaware that the real threat to their lives is waiting outside their door.

Reading Emergency took me out of myself in much the same way writing does; the story, the page, was all that existed. These stories are lovely and tart and marvelously peculiar, the product of an interesting and interested mind.

Many of the stories in Alexandra Chang’s collection, Tomb Sweeping,[3] are meticulously written and deadpan in tone, running in a straight line from promising beginnings to puzzling ends that made me think, huh, what was that? Yet they are not uninteresting, many are memorable, and trying to figure out what she was up to made me want to read on. Of course, figuring out an author’s intention might not be enough for many readers. This is not a book to gobble up; the stories need to marinate in your mind for a while, and even then, you still might not understand them.

The story I found most puzzling, “Unknown by Unknown,” is minutely described yet impenetrable. A woman takes a house-sitting job and is content until a noisy construction crew comes to raze a decrepit blue shed and build a new one in its place. The foreman finds a stash of old sketchbooks in the shed and gives them to the woman, and the next day a drawing of the sketchbooks mysteriously appears. But we never find out who the phantom artist is, and the final action is inexplicable: the woman goes to the new shed and unearths a chip of blue wood that comforts her for some reason. In her hand it felt “solid, sturdy, real.” She “held it close, knowing it belonged with me.” Many of Chang’s stories are short on plot but long on detail, which makes them intense yet unsatisfying. But perhaps she doesn’t mean for her stories to satisfy; not all stories must to be worth a reader’s time.

In a livelier and admirably inventive story, “Li Fan,” Chang tells the life story an “Asian recycling lady” backwards, from her death on the street, from a stroke, to her first day as a promising university student. In only three pages, Chang describes a life of tragedies that eventually add up to destitution. As a story distilled it is more interesting than a longer story would be, and the present to past telling of it is crisp.

If Tomb Sweeping is “about” anything, it’s about relationships and the ways people connect or disconnect. An affecting story, “Klara,” describes the reunion of friends who have grown apart and examines their past relationship for the clues to their ultimate break. Their basic differences are obvious and yet ignored as they navigate college and young adulthood. My favorite scene is one in which the unnamed narrator takes Klara to buy a dildo at a local sex shop called “Good Vibrations.” Chang describes the kind of sisterhood unique to very young women with sympathy.

“Cats take on the personalities of their owners,” begins “Cat Personalities,” a story in which two women insult each other by describing their respective cats. This story is bright and fun to read; Chang has a gift for dialogue. After insulting each other, one of them starts in on a mutual friend and says terrible things about her cat. “By the way, I think Ruth’s cat is a snobby bitch,” she says. “I’m telling you Ruth’s cat is a monster.” It’s obvious which stories Chang relaxed into and which were more arduous to write. I was intrigued by them all, if occasionally baffled.

Katherine Heiny’s novels and stories are always smart and entertaining, but none have been as unrelentingly funny as the stories in her latest collection Games and Rituals.[4] I love funny, I know funny, funny is my thing, so I was thrilled to get my hands on this book. Some collections of stories shouldn’t be read in order, and most collections shouldn’t be read in one sitting, but I read these stories one after the other in a single day and enjoyed every minute. It’s no mean feat to write a collection in which the stories are consistently engaging.

Heiny’s characters run the gamut from confused to mischievous, hapless to eccentric, but what they never are is ordinary, nor are the situations in which they find themselves. Absurdities abound. A disaffected college graduate who works at a copier salesroom wears a bridesmaid’s dress to work; a single mom who worries her son might be taking drugs ends up snorting cocaine for the first time and having “makeup” sex with her ex-husband in his office deep into the night. A migraine-beset young woman is stuck at home during the early days of the pandemic. She sinks into a Zoom relationship with her neurologist, who talks about nothing but himself—including the old standard, his wife doesn’t understand him. Every story is a circus, every sentence is crafted to amuse, but truth and tenderness get equal time. In “Chicken-Flavored and Lemon-Scented,” Colette, a driving examiner, tests a sixteen-year-old girl. The girl drives the car up an embankment to avoid a crash, nearly killing them, then confesses she’s pregnant. Colette, who is single and recently, unwisely, slept with a coworker, promises to help the girl get an abortion. But we are given to understand that she plans to take the baby for herself and tell the coworker he knocked her up. The plan is impossible, but Colette’s desperation is so palpable that the story almost hurts in the end.

I’ve been a fan of Katherine Heiny since her story “How to Give the Wrong Impression” appeared in The New Yorker thirty years ago. In it she employs the second person “you” voice. Ordinarily I find second person a little gimmicky, but it was a sharp story, and I admired it. In Games and Rituals, she uses second person to great effect in the story “Twist and Shout,” which begins with the sentence, “Your elderly father has mistaken his four-thousand-dollar hearing aid for a cashew and eaten it.” How can any reader resist a line like that? The story goes on to describe the man’s daughter trying to replace the hearing aid—which requires four appointments—while dealing with her father’s over-the-top conservative opinions. I enjoyed the riff that lists the many reasons he continually fires his maid for her “liberal” ways, including shopping at a food co-op and using nontoxic oven cleaner. In all the stories, the asides and details really sing. I dog-eared the page that contains one of my favorite lines: “Karma is not a bitch, Charlie thinks—it’s more like an eternal unwelcome gift exchange.”

Sidik Fofana’s debut collection, Stories from the Tenants Downstairs,[5] is the most heartbreaking book of fiction I’ve read in recent memory. An apartment building in Harlem known as Banneker Terrace links Fofana’s characters, all of whom live there and know each other well, their lives intimately intertwined, sometimes for generations. But Banneker is slated to be gentrified; the threat of eviction is the ominous current that runs through every story. Livelihoods are fragile and money scarce, and making rent is on everyone’s mind. No one would choose to live at Banneker—the water runs brown and there is lead paint on the walls, the electricity is iffy and likely dangerous—but Banneker is its tenants’ only housing option and, in many cases, their childhood home.

Options of any kind are as scarce as money, dream though the characters may. Mimi, who abhors her good-for-nothing family, imagines living in a house in Westchester with her developmentally disabled son (poisoned by lead paint) and her child’s father, Swan, who lives with his hardworking mother. But whatever money Mimi earns slips through her fingers: she has a weakness for luxury goods and expensive clothing that bolster her self-esteem. Personal pride runs high despite—or because of—humiliations. Swan, in an effort to help his mother with the rent, takes a job in which he’s required to stand outside a restaurant wearing a chicken costume. Swan’s mother, once she hears of it, orders him to quit: her son will not debase himself regardless of their need.

Poverty is a noose in Fofana’s world; the more his characters struggle against it, the tighter it becomes. The pressure to do something illegal, or at best unethical, weighs heavily on those who can’t help themselves in any other way. They do not fall easily, and when they do they realize their mistakes almost before they make them. Mimi reluctantly joins her friend Sheema in a scheme to buy diapers in bulk with coupons and resell them for a profit at Banneker. Sheema makes a killing at this. But when Mimi goes to Fairway her first time out, she ends up losing her coupons and getting caught trying to steal the diapers. Dary is encouraged by his friend Quanell to turn tricks for rich white men when Dary’s hairstyling gig evaporates, and he can’t, despite determined effort, find another job. Dary goes to a hotel and gives an anonymous businessman a blowjob but refuses to take the money in the end: “My thought process was: if I didn’t take it, I ain’t do nothin wrong.” These are good people who want to remain good, to live peaceful lives free of poverty and threat, but when push comes to shove, they must take what they can get.

Paths out of Banneker Terrace are rocky and narrow with switchbacks and sudden dead ends. In “Tumble,” Neisha spends her childhood training to be a gymnast and eventually qualifies for the Nationals. But before she can compete, she is brutally attacked by a gang of girls who injure her so badly she is forced to drop out of the competition. Thankfully, she recovers in time to accept a gymnastics scholarship at the University of Michigan. “I told myself, Neish, look where you made it all the way to.” She has escaped Banneker. But her self-confidence and focus are so eroded after the attack that she ends up leaving school and going back home, finally facing the ringleader of her attackers, who had been a childhood friend.

Written in Black English vernacular, these stories feel rooted in reality. I thought surely Fofana lives or has lived in a version of Banneker and knows people like Mimi and Neisha and Dary, but all I could find out about him was that he earned an MFA from New York University and teaches school. If he didn’t live these stories, then he is, like all great writers, a person of tremendous empathy. I read so many stories and novels I must admit sometimes I forget a few. I will not forget the stories in Stories from the Tenants Downstairs.


[1] THE ISLANDS, by Dionne Irving. Catapult. $16.95p.

[2] EMERGENCY, by Kathleen Alcott. W. W. Norton & Company. $27.95.

[3] TOMB SWEEPING, by Alexandra Chang. Ecco. $18.99p.

[4] GAMES AND RITUALS, by Katherine Heiny. Knopf. $28.00.

[5] STORIES FROM THE TENANTS DOWNSTAIRS, by Sidik Fofana. Scribner. $26.00.