At a glance:
The stories gathered here are drawn from a wide range of publications. Slick magazines account for more than half of the total; THE NEW YORKER is the leading source, with five stories, while ESQUIRE placed three. There are also stories from a generous mix of literary magazines, both well established (THE PARIS REVIEW, THE HUDSON REVIEW) and relatively obscure (THE CRESCENT REVIEW, THE INDIANA REVIEW). If the sources are refreshingly diverse, however, the stories themselves are far too much alike: All but a handful of them offer what might be called slices of everyday life, and the slices are remarkably thin. No one goes to church in these stories; no one reads a book. There are too many bleak epiphanies, and not enough humor.
It is true that not all the stories purvey domestic realism, but those which do not are by no means uniformly successful. Susan Sontag’s “The Way We Live Now,” the most ambitious and most unconventional story in the volume, employs a chorus of conflicting voices to recount the experience of an AIDS victim--although the disease is never mentioned by name. Seeking to avoid minimalist banalities, Sontag over intellectualizes her material in the manner of Nathalie Sarroute. Craig Nova’s “The Prince” is a fine dark tale, one of the two best pieces in the book. Mavis Gallant’s “Kingdom Come” is not typical of her work; it is a tidy, ironic story, a modern parable, irritatingly smug. “Lady of Spain,” by Robert Taylor, Jr. (which also appeared in the O. Henry anthology for 1987), re-creates an Oklahoma boyhood in the 1950’s with lyricism and humor; it is the prize of the collection. Daniel Stern’s “The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud: A Story” (also an O. Henry selection) is clever and slight. Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” is a pretentious Vietnam story written in a subliterate style that aspires to brutal realism.
Among the larger group of stories mentioned above, there are pieces by John Updike, Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, and other familiar figures--none of them in top form. In the period covered by the volume, Carver published a marvelous story, “Blackbird Pie,” but Beattie chose instead his story “Boxes,” which frequently descends to self-parody: “I can smell the pet shampoo on her. She comes home from work wearing the stuff. It’s everywhere. Even when we’re in bed together.” As Beattie says in her introduction, “the times are difficult.”
Did this raise a question for you?