Posts Categorized: Short Story Reviews

New Yorker: The Empties by Jess Row – Genre Metafiction

Published in the October 27, 2014 issue of  The New Yorker, “The Empties” by Jess Row is a postapocalyptic (or is it dystopian?) short story set in the Northeast. What grabbed me about this story was in the fourth paragraph, where Row’s characters step back and view their own narrative. What story are we in? What’s happening?

Anyway, Quentin’s saying, I was down at the Grange listening to these guys arguing about the difference between dystopia and apocalypse. Can you believe that? One of them was saying that we were living in a dystopian novel, and the other guy, big bearded dude, from the West Rats Collective, said, No, dystopia means an imaginary place where everything is exactly wrong, and what we’re living in is a postapocalyptic, prelapsarian kind of thing, you know, a return to nature after the collapse of society as we knew it.

And I must have been three or four shots in—we were drinking Wayne Peters’s sweet-potato vodka—because I said, Look, kiddos, the truth is neither, because we have no idea what might happen, the infrastructure is still basically in place, especially if people from certain collectives hadn’t stripped out the copper over in White River—

—but my point is really that dystopian and postapocalyptic narratives are narratives, that is, stories: things that are inherently invented or collated ex post facto. Narratives are static. Real life is, is—


The point is, we need to just let all that shit go, because, call it End Times or whatever you want, things are different now. None of the old endings played out, did they? So we have to imagine new endings. Hence the possibility for hope.

So, immediately, Row let’s us know he’s familiar with this genre and willing to pull away from the standard script, but does he follow through? With further references to Cormac McCarthy, he’s aiming his sights high; but ultimately, the story doesn’t deliver. What starts out strong ends up as another post-apocalyptic, disaster story that aims for some literary quality (literary meaning complex sentences and characters who seem like people), but that’s been done by Cormac McCarthy in The Road, Margaret Atwood in the MaddAdam Trilogy, and to an extent in comic books like Y: The Last Man and The Walking Dead, which may not have the literary angle, but do have an original storyline. In “The Empties” the power is out. That’s what leads to this collapse. It’s more benign than Ebola, Zombies, or a nuclear attack. But it’s like the first pitch of a baseball game, all that follows is the same. People are trying to survive after the collapse of civilization as we know it. Where’s the originality that Ross hints at on page one? These next two sentences point toward originality, or at least, create vivid, interesting images.

There was a girl, she remembers, who went up on the grassy hillside behind the Montessori school with a basket of scraps and a pair of scissors and began re-creating her Pinterest page, squares of bright cloth for each jpeg, strips of blue sheet for the tool bar and browser frame.

I love this image of a person coping and going through some technological withdraw in a such a delusional manner.

This isn’t science fiction, Quentin says, because if it were we’d have the answers, we’d know what happened.

And, while this second sentence states there will be no answers, it doesn’t set itself apart from The Road, which also had no answers, but plopped the reader down in a terrible present.

Perhaps, though, the originality is in the form of a disguised death. There’s a dreamy quality to the narration and one can easily imagine lucidity slipping away for the main character. The conversations are like the light from stars. By the time they reach the reader, we don’t realize they happened in the past. How much time has passed? Who said what? It isn’t until the end that we realize the character with whom she’d been talking to is dead. Quentin flows into Nathan and the reader readily confuses the two. There are no transitions or explanations; these are remembrances. Part of the narrator’s writing process. I enjoyed that aspect of the story, but then the true ending seemed to scale back. Outsiders approach the town. Are they good or bad? Is the world that black and white? We don’t know. We’re left with Quentin’s hope and the assault rifle slung across the narrator’s knees.

What were your thoughts on this story? What aspects of the story worked well and, or where did you think the story could be improved?

Review: Sun City – Caitlin Horrocks

In “Sun City” by Caitlin Horrocks a young woman goes through her recently deceased grandmother’s belongings and tries to gain a better understanding of her grandmother in the process.  What really caught me with this story was the opening.

“The floated into the afternoon in their little stucco submarine, the blinds shut against the sunlight and the swamp cooler whistling on the roof. Bev sat on the couch, Rose knelt on the matted carpet, and in the artificial air the two women wrapped jewelry in tissue paper and placed it in egg cartons. Rose had had this idea, the egg cartons, on the plane to Arizona, and it had made her feel organized. In the aftermath of her grandmother’s death, at least there were omelettes to be made. When she realized just how much stuff her grandmother, Vera, had owned, and how little of it Bev wanted to keep, Rose should have come up with a new plan. Instead, they just kept eating eggs.”

I enjoy the description of the stucco submarine withe the swamp cooler on top of the roof. It creates a strange image for the desert. Next, there’s Bev and Rose, with Rose kneeling, wrapping the jewelry. It’s a peaceful image that shows some intimacy. Horrocks also gives us some information in a way that’s not condescending. We learn that Rose is unprepared for this role and didn’t visit her grandmother often. In the final sentence of this paragraph, Horrocks displays humor in the amount of eggs the women eat. It’s an odd detail that ties everything together well.

“Sun City” is a story where everything is not as it seems. Were Bev and Vera lovers or just two old women who shared a house? We believe they had a relationship together, partly because the point of view is that of Rose’s. She thinks Bev and Vera were more than roommates, through the joint Christmas cards and pictures the women would send. As the story moves forward, we discover Rose may be projecting onto her grandmother. It turns out that Rose is gay and her grandmother disapproved.

Another revelation is Vera’s past. Vera was estranged from her daughter, Rose’s mom, and besides being a harsh woman, she used to have a drinking problem as well. Rose’s memories of Vera are spending one week a year with her as a child, while Rose’s mom went on vacation by herself. The estrangement carries on as Rose’s mom has no wish to go through Vera’s belongings, which illuminates why Rose is stuck with the job. It’s sad to imagine family not caring, but beneath the charade of occasional letters and phone calls, we realize the truth of what Vera thought of her daughter and granddaughter.

The intimate scene of Bev and Rose breaks down over the days. It is Bev who tells Rose the truth of Vera and that leads to problems between the two. Rose doesn’t know what she’s doing there and Bev feels as though her space is being intruded upon. The two come together again by rebelling against the spirit of Vera. They drink vodka and rum, reminisce, and try to help one another. However, the ending is wrapped in such an obvious metaphor that it becomes a little too neat. Bev is literally in over her head, grasping onto Rose for support in a swimming pool. The story concludes with Bev clinging to the pool wall, drink in hand, while sitting on the edge of the pool Rose raises her drink in the air. “‘Medicine,’ she offered, and they drank, as if it might be some kind of cure.”

“Sun City” was published in the October 24th issue of The New Yorker. For an interview with Horrocks regarding “Sun City” please read the Book Bench.

Review: Oubliette – David Long

I want to be fair. I really do. But, “Oubliette” by David Long struck me as a narrow, pat story meant more for MFA-wielding literati, than for a broader audience.  For those of you not acquainted with the finer points of language, “oubliette” is a dungeon with a small opening at the top.

The characters, while not two-dimensional, are slightly generic.  First, there’s the documentary film director father, who is kind and sympathetic.  Second, there’s the beautiful, off kilter mother.  And third, there is the scarred daughter who takes after her father, but is tormented by her mother.  See them smiling in the Christmas card? Wonderful.

At this point, it may be clear where the story is going.

Is it:

A) Freakish affair between the father and daughter.
B) Mother goes crazy and locks daughter up in an attic.
C) Daughter runs away and father makes documentary about it.
D) Metaphor for dementia.
E) All of the above.

Okay, so now that we have cleared up that point, the story jumps ahead using the rough transition, “flash forward eighteen months: her parents had split up, her father had become ‘the custodial parent,’ life was proceeding.” The rest of the story contains two more scenes.

We learn what happens to Nathalie’s mom and we learn how Nathalie reacts to her mother’s death. It ends with a late night phone call, because people don’t die during the day, there’s “a dry listless snow…falling,” and Nathalie must begin her “never-ending task of not forgetting her mother.” The writing is fine, but like the falling snow “Oubliette” has a listless quality that makes it seem longer than two pages of prose. For Q&A with David Long, please read the Book Bench. For a more thoughtful review, check out the Mookse and the Gripes.











Come on, this is a New Yorker story. Of course, there will be freakish affairs, but incest? Wait, you may be on to something.

Sorry, but, you may have noticed “Oubliette” is not on this list. Return to the rest of this cranky review.









Wow! Not only do you love Flowers in the Attic, but you’re also right.  Return to the rest of this cranky review.













Running away is a serious problem.  I’m sure your not a bad person, but if you want to help, learn more at  Return to the rest of this cranky review.














Of course it’s a metaphor, but is that all the story is? It’s not, is it? Oh. I see. Will there be a last line to make sure I know that? Return to the rest of this cranky review.














You’re indecision does not due you credit. Return to the rest of this cranky review.



















“And when it did, though she couldn’t quite see it yet, Nathalie would begin the never-ending task of not forgetting her mother.” Return to the rest of this cranky review.

Review: Starve a Rat – Justin Torres

If you haven’t read “Starve a Rat” by Justin Torres, please do; it’s wonderful.  Published in the October 2011 issue of Harper’s, “Starve a Rat” deftly uses first-person point of view to create a wonderful narrative that draws the reader in.  Are we being lied to by the narrator?  Definitely.  Does he ever tell us the truth?  Probably.

The narrator is basically homeless and sleeps with other men to get by.  He’s charming and attractive, but also manipulative.  In the story he hooks up with an older man, Norwood, who cares for him on some level, but also is interested in using him, though it becomes difficult to tell who is using whom.  There are truths Norwood wants to know, like does the narrator have a disease, and stories about the narrator’s past, which seem fabricated, that Norwood is willing to accept.  For the reader, we know more of the truth than Norwood, so it’s a bit easier, but still ambiguous.  The idea of truth and lies is clear in the following passage.

“My girl and I used to play a game called Two Truths and a Lie—but the trick was just to tell three lies, or three true things; the trick was to let no one ever really figure you out: Take my picture. Be my father. Let me stay right here.”

This paragraph haunts the story as we listen to the narrator.  Is he telling us three truths, three lies, or a combination of the two?  It’s up to the reader to decide.

Review: The House on Sand Creek – Thomas McGuane

Published in October 3rd, 2011 issue of The New Yorker, Thomas McGuane‘s “The House on Sand Creek” is a well-written story that can’t wait to get to the punchline.  The story centers around the narrator, a middle-aged, male lawyer full of clichés, and his wife, Monika, an architecture student stranded during the dissolution of Yugoslavia.  The two rent a house, sight unseen, in the country.  When they arrive to the property they find:

“It was an absolute horror. Skinned coyote carcasses were piled on the front step, and a dead horse hung from its halter where it had been tied to the porch. Inside was a shambles, and there was one detail we couldn’t understand without the help of the neighbors: shotgun blasts through the bathroom door. Apparently, Mrs. Old-Time Buckaroo used to chase Mr. Old-Time Buckaroo around the house until he ran into the bathroom, locked the door, and hid on the batch. The sides of the tub were pocked with lead.”

Soon after the move, Monika leaves the narrator and goes home to Bosnia-Herzegovina.  Monika meets another man, has a child with him, and seems to move on.  The narrator continues to live in the house as a bachelor and becomes friends with an off-balance neighbor, Bob.  Monika’s fresh start ends up failing and she moves back to be the narrator, her little boy in tow.

The tone of the story is humorous and there’s a sadness about the narrator which is laughable, because he’s self-aware enough to see how his life must look to outsiders.  He’s aware that he trends toward using clichés instead of direct language.  With Monika back he describes the situation saying, “The feeling came back to me, from the days of our marriage, that I was doomed in life to take a lot of shit and make weak jokes in response.”  That line sums up the narrator well.  Still, the reader reads, not because the story is altogether interesting, but to see what joke the narrator is making.

The joke involves Bob and Monika’s son, Karel, whom Bob has babysat as a kind of surrogate parent.  Mixed in are the narrator and Monika’s deluded belief that there is something salvageable in their relationship or that they are somehow more together than Bob.

Stories like these don’t keep me coming back for more.  I wasn’t caught up in the language, but it didn’t get in the way either.  The result was that I started skimming.  Get to the punchline already, I thought.  Punchline stories, while funny, can leave little for the reader to take away and encourages the reader not to linger.  “The House on Sand Creek” is funny with hints of melancholy, yet it is a story that doesn’t resonate long after it’s been read.

Review: Dog Run Moon – Callahan Wink

Published in the September 26, 2011 issue of The New Yorker,Dog Run Moon” by Callahan Wink is a rapid paced story that takes the reader through a night of terror and exposure across the desert rock.

I enjoyed reading “Dog Run Moon” for its fast pace, deft scenes, and colorful characters.  However, the characters, Montana Bob and Charlie Chaplin, cross the line into caricature.  They are funny.  They are over the top.  Are they believable?  Not really.  Montana Bob seems written in the vein of Yosemite Sam and Charlie Chaplin is a small, hard man with the speaking ability of Silent Bob.

Moreover, the action of the story revolves around Sid stealing Montana Bob’s dog and running away from his failed relationship.  There will always be stories of people running away from failed relationships.  How does Callahan Wink take a different spin on this theme?  For the most part, he doesn’t.  Sid drives past his ex’s house.  Sid muses over what he would have told her, if he could have.  Things take a small turn in that Sid is actually running away, totally naked and bleeding, in the middle of the night.

It’s a fun take on the failed relationship story.  How do people feel when they get dumped?  They are tired, exposed, seeking escape, and hurt.  The story starts with Sid fleeing naked over the desert rock.  He’s alone, he’s pushed to the limit, and at the breaking point.  Everything that happens mirrors his inner life.

What adds to this story is how well Wink manages scenes.  He gives enough information, but holds back.  It propels the reader into the next scene and a little more story is uncovered.  The writing is also quite strong.  The harsh landscape is captured as it cuts and rips at Sid’s body.  There’s an eye for detail and a dynamic use of language.

Someone looking at this story from the academic lit world might want to pick it apart, but not all stories need to be weighty explorations of the human condition.  Overall, “Dog Run Moon” is exciting, well written, and immensely enjoyable.

Interview with Callahan Wink from the Book Bench.

Review: Starlight – Ann Beattie

Ann Beattie‘s short story “Starlight“, published in the September 19th, 2011 issue of The New Yorker imaginatively uses the last official picture of the Nixon‘s as the basis for a story from Pat Nixon’s perspective.

I want to hear from other readers who enjoyed this story, because I found it difficult to get into.  What worked for you? What did you love?  What parts stand out for you?

I love the idea behind this story and am trying to discover why I was not receptive to the content.

Read Q&A with Ann Beattie on TNY blog, Book Bench.

Craft: An Anonymous Island – Yi Mun-Yol

Yi Mun-yol‘s short story, “An Anonymous Island,” published in the September 12, 2011 issue of The New Yorker, explores anonymity, but loses focus of that concept as the story plays out.  In the overpopulation of cities, how well can we know our neighbors?  For that matter, how well do we know those in smaller communities or even those closest to us?

Yi Mun-yol sets this up in the first scene.  The narrator’s husband watches TV and complains about people’s unfaithfulness.  He references anonymity and speaks about his childhood growing up in a rural village with only one clan.

“‘We all knew each other,’ he’ll say nostalgically. ‘It was like looking down into the water at your own reflection…Most of the people were blood relations, so it was practically unthinkable for a woman to be unfaithful. Once in a while someone went off to a nearby village for that sort of thing, but sooner or later it was found out.'”

Whenever the narrator’s husband speaks like this, the narrator dwells on a moment in her past, before the two were married.  She feels guilt and shame.  The rest of the story is all flashback.  We step back to when the narrator was a recent college graduate and moves to a remote village to teach.

The first person she sees is Ggaecheol, seemingly an idiot who drifts around the village.  Ggaecheol is rude and shiftless, yet the village supports.  He rotates whose house he visits and demands food and a place to sleep.  These are given and the narrator observes it all with wonder.  He is not a blood relative, so why do the villagers tolerate him?  Through overheard conversations and some pointed questions it becomes obvious.  The village tolerates him, because he is not a blood relative.  They tolerate him, because women can have sex with Ggaecheol without committing incest.  They tolerate Ggaecheol, but do not speak of his role in the village.

This all plays back to the naiveté of the narrator’s husband.  How well did he really understand his village?  How can an outsider see things differently?  The story is apologetic regarding affairs, or puts them in a context that doesn’t involve love, but animal need.  Ggaecheol is not breaking up families; he is providing a service, one which the whole village is aware.

While anonymity is a theme of the story, the message is lost through the situation.  The idea of the village and Ggaecheol’s role within it takes precedence.  It overshadows everything else.  Is the first scene necessary?  What is the tension between anonymity and Ggaecheol’s story?  Without the first scene, the story loses a layer.  It becomes a kinky story about a village.  With the first scene though it becomes a larger commentary, which is especially interesting since this story is placed in The New Yorker‘s 9/11 issue.

In the end, the reader is left with an unsettling story.  It has a Twilight Zone feel to it.  The narrator moves on and another young woman takes her place.

“Instead of warning her about Ggaecheol, whose eyes clung to her almost hatefully, I shot him a cool look. he met my gaze with the same coolness. I might have been mistaken, but at that moment I thought I saw a faint laughter in his eyes. Just a glimmer. Then he turned his head toward the village and the paddy fields stretching out on the slopes below. There was not a piece of land or a fistful of dirt that he could call his own—or a house or a room where he could lay his head without the owner’s consent—yet he gazed out over that land like a great man, the possessor of everything, an emperor.”

The story never returns to the present.  And really, why should it?  Nothing has changed for the narrator.  She will never tell her husband this story.  It will anonymously exist inside of her with only Ggaecheol knowing the truth.

Additional reading: The Book Bench.

Short Story: El Morro – David Means






Writing is about choices.  That may sound simplistic, but the decisions a writer makes will change the landscape of a story.  When does the story begin?  When does it end?  Time doesn’t stop just because the reader hit the end of the pages.  Time didn’t start on page one.  The writer chose the time frame.

In David Means‘ story “El Morro,” published in the August 29th, 2011 issue of The New Yorker, we are introduced to a young woman who is driving through the southwest with a dodgy guy.  All we know of the woman is that she was originally from the outskirts of Springfield, Illinois, her father was a farmer, he tossed her out of the house, the dodgy guy picked her up in California, he and the young woman occasionally have sex.  When she tries to tell more about herself, the man says, “Don’t say another word…Don’t say anything else.  That’s all I need to hear.  I’ll take the story from there.  I really mean it.  Not another word.  I’d rather fill in the blanks.”  Why do we meet the woman at this point in her life?  What does it mean for the man to make up her story?

Another decision involves characters.  Who are the people in the story?  Why are they in the story?  What is the point of their existence?  Characters can become dead weight if they don’t have a role to play in the story.  The young woman’s role in this story is to give us a view of the man, and later, to act as a third wheel.  I inadvertently brought up point of view, but in this case it ties into character.  The woman’s view of the man is not flattering.  She’s stuck with him, because she doesn’t have many options.  Or, maybe she does, but in this moment, he’s her best option.  The man is a rambling, inconsiderate, drug-addled, know-it-all.  He’s also a bullshit artist.  Means does such a good job of making this character unlikable that it’s hard to read the story.  Why do that?  What’s the writer trying to achieve?  Could this be accomplished in a way that’s less dissonant to the reader?

In an interesting transition the point of view shifts to a park ranger at the end of the story.  It’s interesting, because video cameras are used in the transition.  The characters are at the national monument, El Morro.  Circumstances changed as the man picked up another woman and is focused on her.  A park ranger watches the body language of the man and the new woman.  He provides another reference point, one in which the man does not speak.  There’s an overlap of time; we know what’s being said.  The young woman is left behind and the park ranger swoops in.

The park ranger, Russell, is of the Zuni Pueblo.  Not only does he give the reader a new view of the dodgy guy, but he also acts as a foil in terms of setting the record straight.  Throughout the drive, the dodgy guy spun stories about the Zuni.  He made the stories up.  He tried to impress the women with his non-stop talking about different tribes and spiritualism.  Through Russell’s view-point all of that drops away.  The dodgy guy is portrayed as an empty drifter who cannot see the young woman properly.

On a deeper level, Means is addressing story telling.  Whose stories do we tell?  Why do we tell stories?  What’s the importance of story telling?  The dodgy guy is a story-teller with no thought of his audience.  He’s trying to impress people and inflate his ego.  On the other hand, Russell, tells his wife the story of what happened, because “he knew he was getting to his wife’s heart by telling a good-deed story.  She liked it when he told stories that put him in a kind light.”  Russell also thinks about telling a different story to cover for the girl after she defaced the monument.  It will put him at odds with the archaeologists from Santa Fe, but whose monument is it, and whose story is it to tell?

Short Story: Incident in the Oriente – Paul Theroux

Published in the July 2011 issue of Harper’s, “Incident in the Oriente” by Paul Theroux reads like a 19th century adventure story steeped in imperialism and the power of one man’s will over others.

The story is told in first person, from the perspective of one of the men on Max Moses’ work crew.  Max Moses is a private contractor hired by governments to complete projects in developing nations.  Even though Moses is a small man with a lisp “his tenacity and godlike resourcefulness in getting his people to obey him seemed to enlarge him.  Though he could be chivalrous even in the worst conditions, we knew our lives depended on our obedience to him.”  The descriptions remind me of Kurtz from Heart of Darkness, a powerful man in a remote area who dominates the landscape and the people around him.  The narrator goes on and says, “in another age Moses would have been the captain of a clipper ship, or even a general, as he said, or an explorer in the pay of a king who wanted gold from a far-off jungle.”

While the story revolves around the cold way in which Moses is able to regain control of his crew, it’s a critique of our current society.  When viewed from a lens like Fight Club, there seems to be no recourse for men full of aggression or disappointed with society, but to lash out at one another in violence.  That strikes me as an immature view.  It could be the world of Fight Club is far in our past since the September 11th attacks, two wars in the Middle East, Arab Spring and other humanitarian crises.  Now, there is a place for men like Moses.  It is the gray area of private contracting, a mixture of mercenaries and the East India Trading Company, but under the banners of Blackwater and Haliburton.  Colonialism and imperialism are reviled, but what does it say about a society when it creates entities similar to those that existed in the past?

In a speech to his crew, Moses says,

“It is government work for money—not patriotism or justice.  No abstractions.  We aim for results.  I have spent my whole working life as a contractor—in Kuwait, in Uganda, in Brazil.

The type of government doesn’t matter, as long as we are paid in dollars.  Most of the world is in the hands of megalomaniacs.  We were hired to complete this job, and by God we’ll accomplish it.  Think of us as commandos.”

There is a place in the world for people like Kurtz and Moses, but is it the world we want?