Our War and How We Won It

Since E.J. Cullen has accumulated twenty-eight short stories, originally published in numerous small literary magazines with such titles as DOG RIVER REVIEW or THE ECPHORIZER, into 238 pages, clearly many of these short stories are very short. Although there is no constant correlation between length and quality, such longer stories as “A Life for the Theater” and “Mayberry” degenerate from the very clever, wickedly funny humor of truly short stories such as “Bridgework” or “How Some People Feel About Jesus” to a tedious, almost predictable formal experimentation.

“Breaking with Brezhnev,” for example, is little more than an exercise in alliteration. “Mayberry” and the title story both play with inverting easily recognizable television conventions. In “Our War and How We Won It", a father’s desire to see his son on the television reports as a participant in a Grenada-like war runs counter to the son’s cowardice. In “Mayberry,” Andy is an alcoholic and Aunt Bea involves herself in feminist political meetings as an excuse to get out of the house; unfortunately, this story offers little more than its clever premise.

Set in such diverse locations as Stamford, Connecticut, rural Kentucky, and Arlington, Texas, these stories also work through diverse narrators of both genders, of black and white races, and of many economic and social classes. Yet despite this variety, a certain sameness of point of view emerges: that of the distanced observer who is part of and yet detached from the action being described. Cullen’s collection indicates, in too many ways, an overfamiliarity with the typical freshman literary survey, not least of all through the fact that the occasionally poignant personal observation gets lost in the artificiality of the collection as a whole.