After many years of neglect by publishers, and therefore by writers, the short story seems to be making a comeback in the 1980’s. Editors of the Best American Short Stories series and the The Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards series have both remarked recently that the number of superior stories appearing in American periodicals is definitely increasing. Collections of stories by Grace Paley, Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, and Bobbie Ann Mason are finding eager readers and approving critics.
John Barth, a late discoverer of the short-story form himself, has said recently that the flowering of the short story may be the most noteworthy new development in American fiction. No one seems to know what has caused this sudden growth spurt in what has always been considered the novel’s runty little brother, and no one is sure whether it will last (Carver and Mason and others are now at work on novels—the usual expectation of a publisher willing to take a chance on a first collection of stories). Nevertheless, for those who love the short-story form, the new boom is a long-awaited and long-deserved vindication of the fictional form which writers since Edgar Allan Poe have said is next to the poem in technical demand and aesthetic excellence.
One of the sponsors of the short-story boom is Gordon Lish, formerly fiction editor at Esquire and currently an editor at Alfred A. Knopf. Lish seems more willing than most editors to champion short-story collections by promising but unestablished writers, and during his tenure Knopf has published a number of first collections. Family Dancing is such a book, collecting nine stories by a young writer, David Leavitt, who was graduated from Yale University in 1983. Indeed, his dust-jacket photograph depicts a spectacled young preppie with crewneck sweater and near crew-cropped hair.
It should be said at the outset that Leavitt’s stories are not in the same class as those of Raymond Carver and Grace Paley—either because of Leavitt’s youth and lack of experience or because of his lack of technical and aesthetic mastery of a demanding art form. While they are certainly competent, they are, well, ordinary—limited in range of subject matter and understanding and limited in technical control and stylistic facility.
As the title suggests, and Leavitt’s youth probably demands, the basic subject is family relationships and the tensions that strain the delicate family fabric—divorce, death, sex: A young gay man brings his lover home, testing his mother’s liberal views; a family makes an annual visit to a vacation cottage after the mother and father have separated; three sisters try to come to terms with one another after their father’s death. Most of the female characters in the stories are mothers; most of the male characters are young homosexual men. The older characters are either dying or divorced and the younger ones are trying to find their own identity. Of the nine stories here, three involve guilt-ridden homosexual young men; two center on women dying of cancer; and three focus on women whose husbands are leaving them (one because he is gay). Fathers in these stories are presented, when presented at all, as a strongly-felt absence.
The first story in the collection (and one of the longest), “Territory,” establishes the basic male persona; here he is named Neil Campbell. His mother, still a peace worker in the age of Ronald Reagan, has intellectually accepted her son’s homosexuality, but not emotionally. When Neil invites his lover, Wayne, to come home for a visit, the situation is much like that of a young man bringing his college roommate home for vacation—except that Neil worries about whether they will make love in his house and feels like an embarrassed adolescent when his mother and Wayne first meet. The story is balanced between Neil’s anguished inner guilt and a few delicate external events that challenge the tolerance of his mother, regardless of the fact that she is the president of the Coalition of Parents of Lesbians and Gays. For example, the mother’s fortitude is tested when she shines a flashlight on them as they make love the first night in the yard and when all three go to a motion picture together and Neil is caught putting his arm around Wayne. “Guilt goes with the territory,” says Wayne, and indeed this seems to be the basic focus of the homosexuality stories. At the end of “Territory,” when the two young men return to New York City together, the reader is supposed to believe that Neil is gradually beginning to accept himself. It is, however, the mother’s painful balance between acceptance and revulsion that dominates this story.
The final story in the collection, “Dedicated,” also a long one, is told from the point of view of heavy, ungainly, twenty-three-year-old Celia, but its focus is on the tortured relationship between Nathan and Andrew, for whom Celia serves as a touchstone and an intermediary. Celia is hopelessly in love with Andrew and envies Nathan for what she considers...
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