(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Although it may be primarily a case of “being at the right place at the right time,” few collections of short stories, particularly collections by a new author, receive the kind of media attention that Melissa Bank’s The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing received during the summer of 1999. Billed by publishers as “fiction” on the book jacket, hoping readers would take it as a novel rather than the less popular short-story form, these seven loosely connected stories became one of the most popular “take-to-the-beach books” of the year.

Much of the ballyhoo resulted from Bank being commissioned by the prestigious filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola to write the title story; however, part of the fuss is also due to the popularity of the British single-girl novel, Bridget Jones’s Diary: A Novel (1999; a successful motion picture of which was released in 2001), and the negative reaction of many feminists to the retrograde book The Rules, which instructed women how to attract men by playing manipulative games.

The central character of most of Bank’s stories is Jane Rosenthal, the classic wise-cracking young Jewish working girl, who “comes of age.” With the exception of the longest story in the collection, “The Worst Thing a Suburban Girl Could Imagine,” which deals with Jane’s ways of coping with the death of her father, most depend primarily on clever one-liners typical of stand-up comedy routines. Bank’s witticisms puts her in the camp of similar 1990’s writers, such as Amy Hempel and Lorrie Moore.

“Advanced Beginners”

This is probably the most conventional, creative-writing-class story in the collection, and because it is so well made, it is in some ways the most satisfying. The story focuses on young Jane Rosenthal’s reaction to her brother’s first serious girlfriend, Julia—a reaction which combines jealousy, because she feels Julia is the “kind, helpful, articulate daughter” her parents really wanted and deserved, and sisterly affection, because she can talk to her about such things as love and sex about which she cannot talk to her parents.

Even this story, however, gets much of its energy from the smart talk of the young protagonist, which has made some reviewers call her a kind of female Holden Caulfield. For example, when she tells her friend that breasts are to sex what pillows are to sleep, she adds, “Guys might think they want a pillow, but they’ll sleep just as well without one.” The most effective parts of the story are the conversations and camaraderie between Jane and the older Julia, who gives her a copy of The Great Gatsby.

Overall, the story has more depth than most stories in the collection because of Jane’s gradual coming-of-age understanding of the difficulty of loving and having a relationship. At the end, after her brother breaks up with Julia, Jane goes out on her dock looking for the green light that Gatsby looked for, feeling scared that her brother has failed at loving someone, for, she says, “I had no idea myself how to do it.” The story’s treatment of this theme is a promising introit to...

(The entire section is 1300 words.)