Tartts: Incisive Fiction From Emerging Writers

Aug 22, 2005

A collection of quirky, yet commendable, short stories. Perfect end-of-summer reading.

Tartts: Incisive Fiction From Emerging Writers

In a contest named after Livingston folklorist Ruby Pickens Tartt, Joe Taylor of UWA's Livingston Press put out a call for collections of short stories by writers who had never published a collection and received 153 manuscripts in the mail.

He and his colleagues read them and narrowed the field to 14, then to one. The winner, Melissa Fraterrigo, had her collection published; she and the rest of the top 14 are represented here in Tartts: Incisive Fiction from Emerging Writers by what Taylor and his co-editors judged to be the best story from each collection.

Since the Livingston Press specializes, usually, in the off-beat and avant-garde, these stories are mostly not conventional realism, which put me at a disadvantage, because realism is what I, at the present moment, like best.

But to review the book that is here, not some other book:

In "The Ocean Swimmers," by Melissa Fraterrigo, a kind of circus family on the Jersey Shore, I think, has trained sharks, including a Great White. The family get into the ocean with them, ride them like ponies, even balance in handstands on their backs.

This is, of course, magical realism of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez variety, but very well done. Swimming with sharks cannot go well forever, you might think, and you would be right.

The first story, by Joe Benevento, is also unreal, but this time in the Jorge Luis Borges tradition.

An arrogant young college instructor writes a poem in which he quotes a 19th-century South American poet named Alfonso Real--REAL, get it?--a poet he makes up.

But his graduate student Leslie Ann, whom he has dumped, does research that suggests that there was a real poet named Real and that he was stabbed by his ex-mistress whom he had dumped.

It is fun, clever, imaginative, at this point a little shopworn but still playful.

My favorite story is "Why I Sold My Baby at the Wal-Mart."

This is a first-person "voice" story whose protagonist is a Kentucky redneck girl of no sophistication and less common sense. Her given name was Tammy Renee Cundiff, but she has changed it to Reba Faith after her second and third most favorite country female singers.

She wanted to name herself Reba Shania or Shania Reba, but those didn't have the right sound to them.

Her idiot boyfriend wants to buy a race car to drive and make his fortune, and they have three children with the hopes, nay inevitability, of many more, so they go to the Wal-Mart parking lot and try to sell little Dolly for $2,500.

Reba Faith insists she didn't know it was wrong. They were, after all, her babies. The rights of private property are sacred in Kentucky.

I also liked "John Ashcroft Is My Hero," in which a homeless mentally ill person calls the Terrorist Hotline to accuse various Moslems in his town of being "Osama bin Laden types" and then sits across the street from where they live and watches them get taken away.

At the present writing, this story is surrealistic, too.

Some of these just don't work for me. In both "The Burglar" and "Wetlands," strange visitors, perhaps Satan, perhaps a ghost of some sort, appear with lessons for the protagonist.

I was never certain who was who, as I was never certain of the point of "Learn the Ground," which seemed to be set in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. I think.

This volume, unlike many lately, has no controlling thesis, nor are the stories linked. Each is strictly stand-alone, but Taylor is correct in saying that each is an accomplished piece in its own right.

In a culture where time is so limited, why do people buy 600-page novels instead of volumes of stories like this, which they could read one a day, at bedtime or on a plane?

I don't know, but here would be a place to start.