Story collections are hard to build. They require a design, often one the reader isn’t conscious of — but which the reader feels, like muscle under smooth skin — and they require confidence on the part of the writer. After all, you’re showing off perhaps a dozen or more of your beloved children. Which will the reader delight in? Toward which demanding, yet very vulnerable, child will the reader show impatience? Here are five examples, for readers and writers, of brilliant storytelling in well-built books.
The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze by William Saroyan
This collection, still in print, thank goodness, was published in 1934 by the 26-year-old Armenian-American from the West Coast. It is a brash book, alive with the author’s unabashed attention to himself — “(I am writing a very serious story, perhaps one of the most serious I shall ever write … my laughter is rather sad)” — and it is full of humor and darkness. Each story is lyrical, a love song to writing, to victimized women and harried old men, to the magic in books, to the promise of America.
The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert: 21 Stories and Novellas by Ward Just
The superb novelist about power, politics and their relationship to erotic life has also, all along, been a first-rate writer of stories. In this collection you get the title story and “Honor, Power, Riches, Fame and the Love of Women,” famous among story writers, as well as several guides to the secret life of Washington that will not reassure you. The prose is absolutely lucid and controlled, as befits the work of one of the great correspondents of the Vietnam War.
Park City: New and Selected Stories by Ann Beattie
In this book you hold a feast: the collected stories of one of the finest writers of her generation or any other. Yes, it amounts to a history of the folks who went from smoking hemp to wearing hemp-soled sandals to their children’s orthodontist. But it’s also a history of loving — tales of characters who were compelled to give their hearts over to be broken — and of recovering from love; the “cure,” if there is one, resides in the language, which suggests that the teller is wounded exactly as you have been, and which makes you think about courage.
Mary and O’Neil by Justin Cronin
Cronin is a new writer, but he is going to be known and praised. This collection will be published in February, and readers will be grateful. In musical, precise prose, this youthful writer does justice to age, celebrates the flesh as a young man should, and gives his readers remarkably interesting characters in strong stories which, linked as they are, add up to a novel’s-worth of family life.
The Collected Stories by Grace Paley
It is always time to applaud Grace Paley, and to give thanks for her stories. She writes of politics in love, though not of love in politics, and she does so with the muscle of a stevedore and the delicacy of a surgeon. Here are the great stories of men and women who are prisoners of love, of children who hold them hostage and of the author unashamed to admit that her stake in the lives of her characters is immense. Remind yourself how grateful you are for her huge moments such as the one about the little boy whose hand is on his mother’s breast as “through the short fat fingers of my son, interred forever, like a black and white barred king in Alcatraz, my heart lit up in stripes.”