Wednesday, September 15, 2010

You Are Not A Stranger Here

Since I read most of my short fiction in The New Yorker, I rarely check out library books that are short story collections. Recently, however, as I always look to my book list for suggested reading, Adam Haslett’s collection You are Not a Stranger Here was on it and available at my library.

Haslett’s nine stories ran the gamut --- I read all of them except for one titled “My Father‘s Business,” which from the onset took a track I wasn’t interested in following. The rest of them, modern, mildly violent in parts, and some with shocking events, were good reads even if occasionally profane in language (sometimes, I’m like “really -- is that necessary?”).

The themes of the stories in You are Not A Stranger Here do not break new ground --- the mostly male narrators tell of heartbreak, grief, disappointment, betrayal, jealously, and missed opportunities. As usual for me, it’s the prose that holds the most interest and sometimes keeps me reading an unpleasant story. Haslett has a clean, precise style that effectively lays out with detail the settings as well as sets up the emotions where his characters dwell.

In one of the stories, “War‘s End, “ Paul fights the despair and despondency that accompanies depression as he travels with his wife Ellen to Scotland where she plans to use the library at the university. Using the last of her grant money, their trip seems a desperate attempt to break Paul’s latest episodes of living a life “of empty days.” Paul’s been out of work for a year and has come to the conclusion that his wife’s life would be easier if he were gone. Each day, he rises and thinks about his death. As Ellen researches in the library, Paul saunters about the streets of the small, Scottish town where even the sight of a crumpled flyer “gains on him in malignancy.” When Paul accidentally makes eye-contact with an elderly woman in a restaurant, he, for some reason, follows her home and begins a strange relationship with her and her terminally-ill grandson. As Haslett tells the story, the reader becomes propelled with Paul toward the surprising and unusual ending, not quite in the manner of Roald Dahl, but equally chilling.

In yet another story, “Volunteer,” Ted, a high school misfit with disturbing fantasies, volunteers at a nearby “institution “ where he befriends the psychotic Elizabeth. Lonely but fascinated by Ted‘s interest in her, Elizabeth decides to quit taking her medication. As the effects of not being on medication began, she first feels invigorated, but then the old hallucinations return including Elizabeth's seeing visions of “Hester,“ a bitter Puritan from the seventeenth century, who hangs by her side and controls many of her bizarre actions. Ted, unknowingly, asks for and gets permission to take Elizabeth from the facility for a short trip. Of course, I love The Scarlet Letter reference -- (ha), but the events of Elizabeth’s past, having nothing to do with that story, and Ted’s present collide with a less than predictable end.

Haslett’s ability to pull you in -- as each story’s character is new and different, and perhaps slightly twisted,--- shows he’s a master of short fiction. Even though he writes for the modern audience, he does the reader the favor of giving a kind of resolution, whether you find it satisfying or not -- at least, it's there for the taking.

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