During the past few years, Mary Robison has won increasing recognition as one of the finest of a new generation of American writers. An Amateur’s Guide to the Night is her second collection of short stories. In addition to her first collection, Days (1979), she has published a novel, Oh! (1981). Six of the thirteen stories in An Amateur’s Guide to the Night originally appeared in The New Yorker. It is not surprising that such a high percentage of Robison’s stories should appear in one of America’s most prestigious markets for short fiction, for Robison’s fiction is at once accessible and highly distinctive. With her precise control of language and her rigorous selection of detail and event, she places the reader in the center of her characters’ emotional lives. Robison found her unique voice at a relatively young age, and in this second collection of stories, that voice continues to develop. She has the ability to write such completely rendered stories—within the confines of her narrative approach—that the widespread assumption about necessary apprenticeship years does not seem applicable to her. Raymond Carver has noted that Robison is one of a handful of contemporary short-story writers who are capable of rendering the world according to their own vision. That vision is tempered by a sense of humor, and although some critics have complained about the bleakness in many of her characters’ lives, almost all have responded to her humor and touches of irony. Among the stories in An Amateur’s Guide to the Night that first appeared in The New Yorker, “Coach” was selected for Best American Short Stories 1982, while “You Know Charles” (previously “Happy Boy, Allen”), first published in The Mississippi Review, was included in The Pushcart Prize, VII. Of the five previously unpublished stories in the collection, two—“An Amateur’s Guide to the Night” and “Look at Me Go”—are among Robison’s best.
Robison generally eschews authorial comment, so that motivation of characters and meaning of event must be deduced largely from what the characters say or from their actions. The advantage of such an approach, and one achievement of the stories, is that her characters and their environments become vividly real for the reader. Robison does not indulge in fantasy or in the morbid and sensational, nor are her stories highly plotted with sharply defined climaxes and epiphanies. Rather, Robison presents a “slice of life”—as in certain stories by Anton Chekhov or Ernest Hemingway—but in a manner that suggests the great complexities of the human world. This approach is very much in the tradition of the American short story, from Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” and much of John O’Hara to stories by such contemporaries as Richard Yates and Andre Dubus. The achievement of Robison’s best stories is to make the commonplace significant, to suggest the tensions that lie beneath the surface of everyday life.
In many of Robison’s stories, a character’s natural impulse toward compassion and a sense of meaning is limited or thwarted by his circumstances. Robison’s characters are ordinary people—usually good, decent people, although such a classification would not occur to most of them—who are often confused by the shifting values of contemporary life. They are football coaches, optometrists, high school art teachers, housewives, laborers, college and high school students; they are not intellectuals, and they rarely reflect on the fragmented nature of society. Many critics have found in Robison’s work a sense of disengagement, an anomie that characterizes many contemporary short-story writers—Carver, Yates, William Kittredge, and Ann Beattie to name only a few. Many of Robison’s stories, however, deal with family relationships, and her characters are often compassionate and committed to one another. For the most part, they are not alienated in traditional existential terms but are simply people living common lives in everyday American society.
Robison’s narrative method is to present her stories through several small dramatic sections—often only a page or two, at times less—which suggest the central importance of individual moments in the lives of her characters. In the best stories in this collection—“An Amateur’s Guide to the Night,” “The Dictionary in the Laundry Chute,” “Coach,” “Smart”—these individual moments add up to a revealing portrait of modern society, in which the past and the future are often disjointed from the present. Indeed, Robison suggests that people achieve a sense of meaning in their lives primarily through such individual moments; there is little sense of the past working through her characters and little promise of a future in which those characters will achieve a larger significance in their lives.
The danger of Robison’s method is apparent in such stories as “Nothing’s It,” “Falling Away,” and “You Know Charles,” where her slice-of-life portraits are cut too thin. On the surface, these less successful stories exhibit the deft use of language, the tight structure, and the economical use of detail characteristic of her best work, but at their center, the characters are too fragmented; they do not generate that vital sense of life which is necessary for a Robison story to work. Other writers—Donald Barthelme, for example, or Robert Coover—with different approaches can create successful fictions without that vital sense of character, but Robison’s fiction becomes flat and uninteresting without it.
Because Robison does not directly explore the psychological motivations of her characters, dialogue and action become the focus of narrative attention. A feel for spoken language is one of Robison’s greatest strengths as a...