25 Women to Read Before You Die

Saturday, December 6th, 2003


The Whore's Child: And Other Stories

by Richard Russo

The Epiphanic Fish Bone

A review by Chris Bolton

Michael Chabon has frequently noted that the short story once included a number of genres and types of stories, from the horror of Poe to the mystery of Conan Doyle to the two-fisted tales of the pulps from the '30s and '40s, right up to what we now think of as the literary short story, from the likes of Dickens, Chekhov, and Joyce. Today, while the "lower" genres continue to publish in the short form, the short story is generally accepted to be the mainstay of the literary writer, usually highbrow, often utilizing an elevated writing style favored by grad-school students, and almost always containing an epiphany in which some mundane activity, generously ladled with symbolic gravy, offers transcendent insight to the character.

It's been a long time since I finished a short story collection, cover to cover. Come to think of it, it's been a long time since I finished a single short story. The language is a problem for me; many of the short stories published today read more like a resume for a writer's skill with self-consciously poetic language and stylistic tricks than anything remotely resembling a story. But it's the epiphany that catches in my throat like a fish bone. I puzzle at how some can so easily dismiss the syrupy feel-good messages of mainstream cinema (bad parent learns how important family is, self-important jerks rediscovers humanity, etc.) while embracing the equally contrived epiphanies of short literary fiction. In both cases the artists are not-so-subtly looking down their noses at both character and audience, jabbing us in the side with an elbow while muttering, "See how clever I am? I've got all the answers right here."

The Whore's Child is the first collection I've read front to back in longer than I can recall. As an admirer of Richard Russo's novels, which are more interested in involving the reader in story and character than in heaping loads of symbolism or fiction-workshop gimmicks, I was eager to read his short stories one in particular.

"Monhegan Light" was first published in an issue of Esquire that I read as my plasma was being pumped out of my body for money, and I never noticed the needle jammed into my arm. It remains one of the best short stories I've read: the account of a professional cinematographer who visits the island where his now-deceased wife summered for years, to confront the painter who was her lover and for whom she served as muse. There's a sort of anti-epiphany in "Monhegan Light," as Martin realizes how little he was able to appreciate his wife until he viewed her through the eyes of another man, and comes to understand he will treat his current lover with the same disregard:

What folly, Martin couldn't help concluding, bitterly, as he contemplated the lovely young woman sleeping at his side; it was his destiny, no doubt, to sell her short as well....What absolute folly love was. Talk about a flawed concept.

What makes "Monhegan Light" stand out, in addition to its insight into how men look upon love and beauty, is its momentum. This is not a story in which the main character reaches a heightened awareness through a monotonous activity, nor an exercise in understatement wherein nothing of note happens; rather, the story is fraught with tension and conflict, the time-honored storytelling elements that date back to Plato, and which all great writers understand and embrace (and many modern writers have forgotten entirely). Martin's confrontation with his wife's former lover is skillfully recounted and surprising in its conclusion. Just as crucially, the characters and dialogue are vivid and believable; I know Martin maybe not by name, but I know this man just the same.

I've read "Monhegan Light" several times and it seems to get better with each revisit. The other stories in this collection are also strong, if not quite as personally resonant for me. Russo's fans will likely appreciate "The Farther You Go," a sort of rough draft for his celebrated novel Straight Man, which contains a few familiar events (as well as a different name for Hank's wife) and a number of important differences the narrator's sense of humor being one of them (he's much more irreverent in the book).

Also noteworthy are the title story, in which a nun discovers a hard truth about her life while writing a memoir in a fiction class, and "Poison," in which two longtime friends, both writers, one more successful than the other, come to realize the gulf that has grown between them. A brief synopsis of the stories can make them sound like the kind of portentous homework assignment one expects of much literary short fiction, but this is inaccurate; Russo's stories are first and foremost a pleasure to read. He writes clearly and lucidly about recognizable characters in compelling situations. A great many authors seem to be creating for graduate writing programs; Russo is one of the few who writes for the rest of us, the ones who like Chabon remember when a short story was actually a story, and you wanted to read it. It's astonishing how rare that is anymore.

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