(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Mary Robison’s early stories deal with the recurrent theme of the spiritual torpor at the center of a materialistic American society that is shallow, banal, boring, and bored. Her stories can be read as variations on the theme of stasis and, as such, resemble James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914) as much as the work of Carver or Beattie. Novelist David Leavitt accurately analyzes the common dilemmas of many of her characters as their inability to move “because they’re terrified of what will happen to them if they try to change.” Waiting and fear of change characterize a number of her early stories, but the waiting and fear eventually create a prevailing sense of lassitude and ennui, the desperation of a Sunday afternoon in November.

Barth describes her style as “hard-edged, fine-tooled, enigmatic super-realism,” phrases that could as well describe the early Joyce. Robison, however, differs from early Joyce principally because much of her work, in spite of presenting bleak lives, is extremely comical, a quality that some overly serious critics usually miss. She is a comic writer even in the dark world of her first collection, Days, a pun that immediately establishes the malady of the quotidian as a major theme but also describes the “dazed” condition that many of her characters inhabit.

The gnomic titles of many of her stories are quite humorous, and when they are not ironic, they mix humor with sadness. They are, however, unerring objective correlatives, which permit plot, character, theme, and tone to coalesce comfortably. Her stories are extremely difficult to analyze with the usual literary methods because she rarely begins them at the beginning; she opens in medias res—that is, in the middle of things. Indeed, her stories are not stories in a narrative sense but rather parables of emptiness or scenes resembling the kind that the composer Robert Schumann evokes in his heartrending Kinderszenen (1838). In spite of the sorrow depicted in much of her work, however, Robison consistently creates stories whose titles and proper nouns can evoke comic responses: Bluey and Greer Wellman of “The Wellman Twins,” Dieter and Boffo of “For Real,” Sherry, Harry, and Daphne Noonan of “Coach,” Ohio congressman Mel Physell, who writes poems on prosecutorial immunity, and a Great Dane named Lola from “Apostasy.”

“Kite and Paint”

The opening of the first story in Days, entitled “Kite and Paint,” illustrates clearly the theme of waiting, which recurs frequently throughout Robison’s fiction: “It was the last day of August in Ocean City, and everybody was waiting for Hurricane Carla.” Two men in their sixties, Charlie and Don, have been living together for some time. Don is not in good health but continues to care for his rose garden. He is a painter but seems to have lost interest in his craft; Charlie chides him for his unwillingness to paint anything. It is not clear whether they are lovers, though Don’s former wife, Holly, has come to warn them that Hurricane Carla is imminent. The hurricane has temporarily given both men first a focus, then a purpose for action since neither seems frightened of it. It is as though they have been waiting for a disaster such as this all their lives.

The stasis in the story has been broken, and the artist, Don, spent the previous night drawing geometric figures on six kites and naming them with titles such as “Comet,” “Whale,” “My Beauty,” and “Reddish Egret.” The hurricane has mysteriously revived Don’s imagination after a long hiatus and, more importantly, he decides to fly the kites as the hurricane arrives. “It’d be fun to waste them in the blow,” Don declares. Robison fuses the joy of reawakened creativity with a vague death wish as the couple decides to confront “Carla,” which is the feminine form of the proper name “Charles,” the name itself meaning “man.” By matching two important proper names, “Carla” and “Charlie,” Robison also invites a humorous Freudian interpretation to the possible final hours of a nearly dried-up painter and a retired junior high school shop teacher.

“Pretty Ice”

Most of the characters in Robison’s fiction live their lives unaware of their deepest motivations and remain ignorant of the power of the unconscious. One of the sources of the sardonic tone in much of Robison’s fiction is observing so many characters blind to their self-destructive impulses; they literally do not know what they are doing. The perennial graduate student in plant taxonomy, Will, in the story “Pretty Ice,” is a case in point of someone whose scientific mind-set has cut him off from the potential joys of impulse and prevents him from viewing the aesthetic side of an ice storm in Columbus, Ohio. His fiancé, Belle, who holds a Ph.D. in musicology, decides at the story’s conclusion that she cannot marry someone who is unable to share her and her mother’s view that “an ice storm is a beautiful thing. Let’s enjoy it. It’s twinkling like a stage set.” The literal-minded taxonomist, Will, responds: “It’ll make a bad-looking spring. A lot of shrubs get damaged and turn brown, and trees don’t blossom right.” His inability to permit his imagination to make something “pretty” becomes the final blow to a seven-year relationship that was over some time before. His icy response puts his fiancé in touch, finally, with her real unconscious feelings.

“Bud Parrot”

The long story “Bud Parrot” illustrates, if the reader observes closely, an unspoken sexual subtext upon which the narrative rests. The occasion is a wedding in Ohio, of Bud Parrot’s closest friend and longtime roommate, Dean Blaines, to Gail Redding. Both men are in their middle thirties, and Bud Parrot is there to try, somehow, to win Dean back. They have probably been lovers. The tension rises as Bud, accompanied by Gail’s sister, Evaline, whose constant knowing wink alerts the reader to the “real” story, impulsively surprises the newlyweds in their honeymoon suite at the Columbus Hilton. Evaline and Bud have just come from a visit to the Columbus Zoo. They find little evidence that anything sexual has occurred between husband and wife, but Dean assures Bud and Evaline that the “real” honeymoon will take place in Madrid. The tense scene ends with Bud Parrot excoriating Spain, chomping on an apple, and acting as a tempter as Dean rubs Gail’s back while she glares knowingly at the handsome Bud Parrot. Once again, Robison, who trusts her reader completely, does not need to explain that some of the wedding guests probably know about the true nature of the lengthy relationship between Bud and Dean; she invites the reader to compare the “zoo” in the Honeymoon Suite at the Columbus Hilton to life in the actual Columbus zoo.

“May Queen”

Mary Robison can move from the sexual desperation and commercial surrealism of expensive Ohio weddings to, in “May Queen,” an unconscious reenactment of human sacrifice in Indianapolis with consummate ease and assurance. Mickey and Denise observe with horror as their May queen daughter, Riva, catches fire from holy candles in St. Rose of Lima church on a glorious spring day. The choice of the name of the parish, St. Rose of Lima, adds to the irony of the story since Saint Rose was renowned for the severity of the penitential sufferings that she inflicted upon herself. The story ends with Riva’s father trying to relieve his daughter’s pain with promises of vacations on the shores of Lake Erie, “where we can lie around and bake in the sun all day and you’ll be eighteen then. You’ll be able to drink, if you want to.”


Not all Robison’s stories document lives of quiet desperation so blatantly. “Heart” records the life of a lonely, aging man, Roy, who lives his life vicariously by starting conversations with teenagers at the local roller skating rink and with the friendly paperboy, whose line “Pretty soon, a new guy will be collecting” records another loss for a solitary person such as Roy. The story is an American version of British writer Katherine Mansfield’s classic “Miss Brill,” but without its sentimental ending. “Heart” concludes with Roy exhorting a local dog to “Wake up and live. Count the Fords...

(The entire section is 3433 words.)