(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

As an introduction to her collection of stories, Susan Perabo quotes these lines from James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”: For while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.

Perabo presents the reader with characters who suffer in various situations and in many cases achieve a type of triumph.

She tells these stores from different points of view, employing both male and female narrators of varying ages and circumstances. Typically, her stories begin with a short, attention-getting sentence such as this opening line from “Explaining Death to the Dog”: “After the baby died, I found it imperative that my German shepherd Stu understand and accept the concept of death.” Another typical device is the twist that appears at the end of a number of the stories. A woman who travels to her hometown to deal with her mother’s problems discovers hope for her own life. A father, who has been so distracted by his own thoughts that he has lost touch with his family, is surprised by the actions of his twin sons. Perabo creates desperate characters who often deal in unusual ways with the hardships of everyday life. In their attempts to survive painful situations, they try to escape from reality. Sharp dialogue reveals the complicated relationships between friends, parents and children, husbands and wives. At times the snatches of dialogue add a touch of humor.

“Thick as Thieves”

The narrator of “Thick as Thieves,” Jack, a fifty-nine-year-old Hollywood actor whose career is in a slump, is having problems with his fourth wife. The theme of alienation is dominant here as shown in Jack’s failure to maintain personal relationships. His wife tells him that he makes her feel empty, and he has had very little contact with his father, a retired grocer. In an attempt to make contact with his father, Jack invites him to come for a visit. Jack has seven cars, owns paintings worth forty thousand dollars, and lives in a twenty-four-room mansion in a very wealthy area. When the neighbors’ security camera catches his father in the act of stealing jewelry, Jack makes excuses for him, saying that his father may be a victim of Alzheimer’s disease. Admitting that he has done this before, the father tells Jack that he steals for the thrill of it, that it is “the purest thrill you’d ever know.” He does not sell the jewelry, but gives it to the old women who live in his retirement community and bake cookies for him. When Jack returns the neighbors’ jewelry, he holds back one piece, which he puts in his father’s pocket. Later, when Jack attends his father’s funeral, he notices that many of the old women, dressed in ordinary house dresses and worn coats, are wearing expensive jewelry. Jack recognizes some of the pieces as jewelry that belonged to his wife. This story represents one of Perabo’s major themes, the desire to reinvent oneself. Just as Jack’s career has allowed him to assume different identities, his father has chosen to live the life of a thief because it provides excitement. When Jack complains that he does not even know who his father is, the old man replies, “I’m anybody I want to be.”

“Counting the Ways”

Joel and Katy, the young married couple in “Counting the Ways,”...

(The entire section is 1408 words.)