Because Julie Orringer seems so typical of young MFA-produced writers (graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Stegner Fellow in creative writing at Stanford, Pushcart Prize winner), one may be prepared for a batch of cookie-cutter stories in her first collection. And, truth to tell, there is some predictability in these well-made fictions, as if they spring as much from stories Orringer has studied as from emotions she has felt. There is no question that Orringer’s teachers—Thom Jones, Frank Conroy, and James Alan McPherson—have taught her well the art of the short story.
However, in spite of the “not-another-Iowa-graduate” sigh the book jacket bio may arouse, reading these stories will often elicit a sharp shock of profound recognition and a begrudging nod of sincere admiration. For example, “Stations of the Cross,” one of the many stories here about the sometimes- violent world of children, moves to an inevitable brutal climax; however, the fact that you know it is coming does not lessen the horror it provokes.
And although “Pilgrims,” the best-known and most celebrated story in the collection, seems almost a parody of running-wild children and New Age adults, when a terrible accident occurs that seems easily covered up by youthful viciousness and parental preoccupation, you cannot help but be shocked.
The title How to Breathe Underwater: Stories comes from the longest story in the collection, “The Isabel Fish,” about a fourteen-year-old girl who tries to cope with the accidental death of a friend by drowning. But it develops into a general metaphor throughout the book of characters trying to survive in deprived atmospheres. Although some of the stories seem too much like assignments for an MFA creative-writing class, they will jolt the reader. Artifice though they may be, they won’t be easily forgotten.