December 29, 2017: “Least Resistance” by Wayne Harrison

I’m pretty sure today is Friday, but I’m not 100%. Really, I just had to look at a calendar to find out the day of the week: That’s how blissful this break time has been. Reading, writing, cooking, eating, and having massive Nerf gun battles with my boys. I know that I’m supposed to do stuff to make money, but, you know, if I could sustain my life—pay my bills, eat, travel, etc.—and not work? I would do that in a heartbeat.

Today is the … third? … day in a row that I’ve done a post and I’m really enjoying these new books. For one, it’s a relief to read something that’s not on 8.5 x 11″ white paper, things that need to write on with a pen. Maybe I’m still relaying wisdom and commentary for these posts, but at least it’s a change of pace: It’s not like Samantha Hunt or Meagan Cass are going to go back to their stories and revise because of anything I’ve said. That takes a little pressure off me. Plus, that white paper. Ugh.

Secondly, three books in three days have produced perhaps the three most different books I’ve read in any stretch, as Hunt and Cass’s books had their own particular aesthetics (described in those posts), and today’s focus, Wayne Harrison, is no different. Hunt’s stories are elegant masterpieces, all over the place in terms of perspective and theme. Cass’s ceaseless imagination make for an eclectic and fun ride. Harrison, however, is more of a callback to previous styles, more traditional stories in both telling and structuring. I won’t go so far to compare his work to Carver’s (which is so easy to do), but certainly, I thought of Carver’s direct contemporaries here, Tobias Wolff and especially Larry Brown. In any case, Harrison writes a solid, mean-ass story.

I read a few stories from Harrison’s Wrench, the most recent winner of the New American  Fiction Prize from New American Press. Since they were all solid, I could have written about any of them, and almost wrote about the title story, “Wrench,” though I’m going with the lead story instead. “Least Resistance” is a piece that back in the day was in The Atlantic and Best American Short Stories. I’m not sure if Harrison is “known” for a story, but if he was, this would probably be it, right? (And note, I’m pointing this out because I wish I was “known” for a story, for something as high profile as “Least Resistance” has perhaps been for Harrison.)

“Least Resistance” is the story of Justin, an almost-nineteen mechanic working in the garage of a regionally, and possibly nationally, famous hotrod guru, Nick Campbell. Nick inherited the business from an uncle some years back and moved with his wife, Mary Ann, from Oregon to take over. Magazines write stories about Nick’s prowess and middle-aged tough guys come in with their Iroc-Zs and Chargers to have Nick install upgrades, thousands of dollars to get a sweeter-sounding engine or a few more MPH. Justin admires the heck out of Nick, workships him, in fact, and is becoming his star pupil, leaping over Sammy, an older, more temperamental, and simpler guy.

Good setup for a story—don’t read too many set in garages (more on that soon)—but Harrison immediately complicates matters by the end of page two when he reveals that Justin has been carrying on with Mary Ann on his off days, fornicating on the living room sofa when they know Nick can’t leave the garage. Mary Ann, the older, wiser, and forbidden lover, has Justin smitten, despite some serious rules, like only doing it missionary-style and Justin never, ever entering Nick and Mary Ann’s bedroom. Still, Justin gets to spend his days frolicking with his boss’s wife, staying naked for hours on end, because, well, they’re going to keep going at it and clothes would only get in the way. For an eighteen year old, one apparently without scruples, it’s a fantasy come true.

Does Justin’s infidelity with his idol’s wife have anything to do with Nick’s recent fuck-ups? As of late, Nick has had a lot of rechecks come in, meaning those custom jobs guys pay him a lot of money to execute are pulling back into the garage, something pinging here, something leaking there. To me, who can change a tire and that’s about it, that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but to these gear heads, Nick might as well have pissed in their cup holders. Soon, Nick’s reputation goes from go-to to nil, putting this business, livelihood, and marriage in jeopardy. The tension just gets thicker when Nick calls Justin, asking him about another botched job, and Justin is literally on top of his wife. Because this is a story, something’s got to give, right?

There’s more complications to come before any dam breaks, before we reach any sort of climax or resolution. I won’t reveal any of that here, though, as I want to leave something for you to discover. I will point out, however, that Harrison really sells the mechanic stuff, listing endless adjustments, ailments, and conditions that make it seem like a real mechanic is telling the story—and for good reason, because Harrison worked as a mechanic for five years before settling into life as a writer and professor (with a stop-off as a prison guard in between). One writing rule I have is never try to write from a military POV, as there’s no way that I, who has never served, could ever convince anyone I knew what I was talking about—veterans can smell and civilian poser a million miles away. The same could be said for mechanic stories. Maybe that’s what reminds me of Larry Brown, a fireman-turned-writer, his authentic-sounding fireman stories. That’s why I focus on middle-aged dorks in my fiction: Air-tight legitimacy. I got the street cred dripping off me, left and right.

Three stories into Wrench, I’m a fan of Wayne Harrison’s work, solid tales about working-class dudes trying to make their way … despite the fact they try their hardest to fuck things up. Harrison’s stories are about people earnestly trying to change, and from what I’ve seen, they do, in some ways, as trying hard will often get a result. These stories are existential in that way, Harrison’s protagonists sincere but limited, victims of their own choices, their own limitations, but also of the choices others make, of their predicaments. I found myself rooting for these heroes, wanting them to win out, but by the third story, had the distinct feeling they wouldn’t. That’s the world Harrison writes about, a world that’s a helluva place to visit, especially when led by such a talented guide.




December 28, 2017: “The All-Mutant Soccer Team” by Meagan Cass

Hello there, Story366 loyalists! Look at me, posting two days in a row. It’s like 2016 all over again … if I just did this 364 more times. Won’t be doing that, but as mentioned in yesterday’s post on Samantha Hunt, this winter break free-time-a-thon is like the best thing in the world. I mean, it’s kind of like summer, only for one month, and, well, colder. I suppose there’s also more urgency to get things done over winter break than summer break, as there’s less time, but there’s also the end of the year/start of the year dynamic, me trying to get in as many posts as I can in 2017. Today is #16 on the year—far less than 366—and even if I finished as strongly as possible, I’d still only end up with 19 for 2017. So, not even the once-a-week schedule that I’d planned, but hey, we do what we can.

What kind of gets me about not doing more posts this year is that it means I haven’t read as many books, or as many new books, and going back to the start of this blog, that was always my original goal: read as many new books and discover as many new writers as I could. In a normal, blogless year, I’ve more than done that so far—I think all 16 entries in 2017 have been on new collections—but there’s certainly many more that I haven’t cracked, acquired, let alone heard of. After being ultra-caught up on the world of contemporary short fiction at the end of 2016, I’m yet again behind. Luckily, there’s all kinds of lists out there that at least tell me what I’ve missed, such as this from Paper Darts, a best-of for collections for 2017. and then there’s always the reliable Dan Wickett at Emerging Writers Network; Dan keeps a list of all the story collections that come out every year, so he’s kind of like that set of World Book Encyclopedias that was on the shelf in all my parochial school classrooms, at hand when I needed him (and often taken for granted).

The important thing is I’m enjoying collections now and enjoyed the heck out of one today, ActivAmerica by Meagan Cass, out from the University of North Texas Press as the most recent winner of their Katherine Anne Porter Prize last year. I’ve read a bevy of stories by Cass—she’s widely published in journals—and I’m happy that she has the collection out that she deserves. And she certainly delivers with this debut.

I read six stories in preparation for this post, a mix of longer/regular-sized stories and shorts, and liked everything I read. Cass has the ability to come up with weird and wonderful concepts, surely, such as today’s feature, “The All-Mutant Soccer Team,” but can also bend a realistic story, about more or less average people, into something peculiar and engaging as well. An example of this is the title story, “ActivAmerica,” about a middle-aged superstore employee engaged in a nationwide health program, basically making her run a mile a day, every day. Cass has the ability to pull her reader into her concept rather quickly, making each story an exciting adventure into a clear, fully realized world. She has some overlap in themes—people seem to get cancer in a lot of her stories—and they all seem to take place in and around Chappaqua, New York. Overall, though, this was the most fun I’ve had with a book in a while, as Cass was able to dazzle me with her creativity, characterization, and settings over and over again.

“The All-Mutant Soccer Team” had me thinking of the X-Men and that kind of mutant going in, but in this story, Cass is writing about the kind of mutant that results from too much nuclear waste in the local lake, nuclear waste that has turned everyone’s skin green or their teeth a glowy blue or has given kids flippers instead of hands. The corporation responsible won’t pay for the clean-up, but instead agrees to pay half of everyone’s medical bills. The logical answer, of course, is for everyone to move, but then we wouldn’t have a story, would we? Plus, the take-what’s-coming-to-you attitude of the people in this town plays into their identity, plays into the plot of the story, too: It’s easy to believe that people, roots down, will just bite the bullet, make the best of a situation, rather than face the horrors of moving, starting new lives elsewhere. In that way, this story serves as a pretty obvious metaphor for stagnation, why anybody who lives in any shitty place doesn’t just move to a nicer place.

The story is focused on this eleven-year-old kid who goes to middle school and plays on the soccer team coached by his dad. Cass seems to be poking at something else here, as the soccer team is where all the mutated kids end up, along with the geeks and the home-schooled kids, as the cool, healthy, non-mutant kids play the more popular sports, football and basketball and cheerleading and the like. Not having gone to a school that had soccer—plus, I hate soccer—I can imagine this is how many school’s soccer teams are assembled (though in reality, soccer players are excellent athletes and have simply endeared themselves to the metric system of team sports), a bunch of outcasts and mismatches and leftovers. Literally, though, these kids are monsters, and instead of A.V. club or flag corps, Cass sticks them on the soccer team.

Anyway, the problem with the all-mutant soccer team is that nobody wants to play them. Of course, nobody will travel to play them at home—hey, another metaphor, the way the richer suburban schools never wanted to come to the poorer suburbs when I was in school, too afraid they’d all get shot as they filed off the bus—so they get some road games, but by the time this story gets going, nobody really wants them on their fields, either. One school even says they’d like to see more tests done, you know, just to be safe, that mutation isn’t contagious. Because the mutant kids are the protagonists, Cass’s own Bad News Bears, we feel sorry for them, see them as those ragtag underdogs that just want their shot.

That’s as far as I’ll go with the plot, as really, for a regular-sized story (or non-short), “The All-Mutant Soccer Team” isn’t that long. Cass also keeps the action moving quickly. Amidst all the games and canceled games and mutantism, however there’s still this kid, this narrator, and there we get another call-out, this one to sports story conventions, his dad a real jack ass, an overbearing coach who runs the poor little mutants to death because he thinks it builds character (and leg muscles). The climax of this story involves the dad, but really, the story sits with this kid, this mutant—one who knows cancer is just one checkup away—who has to deal with his condition, his dad, and being an eleven-year-old kid in America, flippers or hands or whathaveyou.

ActivAmerica is filled with stories like this, character sketches that take place in fantastic worlds, be they filled with mutants, ghosts, orphans, or divorcées, anyone on the fringe who has to overcome an extra pile of shit because they feel just a bit different. It’s a terribly fun collection to read, the scope of Cass’s imagination and heart both seemingly limitless.


December 27, 2017: “Beast” by Samantha Hunt

Happy Wednesday, Story366 enthusiasts! Right now I’m in that blissful time post-Christmas, pre-New Year’s where the world kind of stands still. I’m off from teaching. Karen is off from teaching. My kids are out of school. There’s no shopping or baking or wrapping. Me and the boys sleep until ten every morning and stay up way too late at night. We nap. We eat leftover Christmas food for our meals and venture to finish off the Christmas cookies. We have nowhere to be. Most everyone we know is either out of town or offline. And it’s freaking cold outside, in the low twenties at the high, prompting us inside, away from adventure, away from ambition. We have spent a few days doing anything we want, whenever we want, for as long as we want. I’ve read books, watched Netflix, Nerf-gun battled my sons, and not cared what time it is. Is there a better time to be an academic or an artist?

At some point, I have to turn this freedom, this unencumbered time, into words on the page, finish at least one of the three stories I’ve started, as, you know, this feeling of euphoria, of free time, is what we writers crave. During any given semester, I fight and claw for the energy to write, also when I fight and claw for the time—energy and time have to align, and that’s tough to do, as often as a solar eclipse or some comet passing by our atmosphere. Still, I manage; stories get written. Over breaks like this, with zero excuses, we’re supposed to produce like German factories, right? Literally, I think that’s why I get a month off between semesters, so I can conjure the written word, build my vita, bring esteem to my department. Karen always tells me as I head off to my office, “Be brilliant.” She knows this will include me eating, me napping, me reading pointless articles on the internet, me doing whatever I do in my office when kids aren’t vying for our attention. I might also fit in a Story366 post. Then, and only then, will I take a stab at brilliance.

With that in mind, let’s get to Samantha Hunt and her collection The Dark Dark, out from FSG, one of the five collections Karen bought me for Christmas from this very awesome list from Paper Darts, a best-of for collections for 2017. I’ve read stories here and there from Hunt in the past, but haven’t read any of her three novels (I don’t read many novels, so that’s not surprising). I was happy to get a collection of hers—her first—in my hands, experience more of her work, and a bunch of it at once.

To prepare for this post, I read three stories from The Dark Dark, “All Hands,” “Beast,” and “The Yellow,” and could have written about any of them, as all three stories are striking, wonderful pieces of fiction. They’re also an eclectic bunch, with completely different settings, characters, and points of view, unified by the fact they’re written by the same author, but also by how surprised I was by the twists Hunt takes us on , how I couldn’t have predicted how any would proceed. In fact, I couldn’t even tell you, after a couple of pages into each, what any of them were about or would become about. Plot unfolds in these stories, then changes its mind, then rushes toward unlikely endings, or no endings at all. These were some of the more interesting and unique stories I’ve read in a while. I love all three.

Since I have to pick one story, I’m picking “Beast,” as it’s most likely the story I’ll share with my students this coming semester, the story I think they should read, the story I want everyone to read just so I can talk with them about it when they’re done. “Beast” is about an unnamed woman who lives with her husband, reads the paper in bed, and gets a lot of ticks. At least this is what you would think the story is about after a few pages, as this is what happens: Our protagonist lies in bed, reads the paper, thinks about the stories she comes across, and talks to her husband as he pulls ticks out of her skin with tweezers. This isn’t a car chase or a duel or a passionate embrace in the surf, but at the same time, Hunt keeps it interesting with quick back-and-forth—the dialogue is quick, punchy, and fun—and interesting stream-of-conscious narration. One news story is about a man in Minnesota who works like seventy-eight hours a day, plus gives plasma, to put his twin sister through college, which makes our hero think about her own brother, who hung himself years earlier. So, not a lot happens, but we get to know this couple, even envy them, especially when our hero describes her husband, their good run, as luck, she and her friends randomly picking boys in high school, hers the only one a perfect match.

Where’s this story going? On top of being a relationship story, our protagonist reveals, eventually, that every night, when her husband falls asleep, she turns into a deer. Literally, she means it: hooves, pointy face, fur, the whole deal. Since she doesn’t have thumbs, she can’t leave their little house (they live on someone else’s property and pay their way by acting as caretakers, so there’s a little Shining here) because she can’t turn the knob on the door. So she waits, as a deer, until morning, when she turns back into her human self and then she and her husband resume their normal lives. (And now I’m thinking back to a detail in the first sentence, one that pegs her as nude every night in bed, which now makes a lot of sense—pajamas would pose a serious deer problem.)

Our hero swears that any day now, she’s going to tell her hard-working and loyal husband that she’s turning into a deer every night because … sooner or later he’ll wake up and find out for himself; the fact he keeps a loaded rifle in the house adds a few degrees to the tension. In the meantime, Hunt takes us through a few nights where she talks about her tick bites (which also make more sense), discusses musicals, thinks about a deer-fucker named Pete she remembers from childhood, and oh, right, deals with the affair she’s had (or maybe is still having) with a guy named Erich, who calls her and announce the degree to which they’ll fornicate. Note: The deer transformations seem to have begun right after the affair began, but nothing more is made of that, so we have to wonder about the sorta-obvious connection. Is Erich a weredeer? That’s one question, surely, but another: Is she really turning into a deer, or is it some weird mid-life crisis, some manifestation of guilt?

I won’t answer these questions here, as like I said, there’s more twists and turns on the way, nothing I could have predicted or would spoil for you. Not that I was predicting anything, anyway, as I was too lost in the prose, in the story, be it the twin brother anecdote or the Pete anecdote, or this couple’s familiar back and forth, two people in love despite what’s happened, what still will happen. I liked getting to know these people and could have read about them for pages and pages, the deer detail just an added bonus.  “Beast” is such solid fiction, in every sense, I don’t think me describing could do it justice. This is definitely one I recommend you check out for yourself—I can’t wait to see my students’ faces the day we talk about it.

The other stories I read in The Dark Dark had similar effects, one about a Coast Guard officer and another about a guy who moves back in with his parents, then runs over a neighborhood dog; if neither of these descriptions sound all that promising, trust, me, that’s just the basic set-up for what turn into really awesome, surprising, and exciting pieces of fiction. I suspect all the stories in The Dark Dark are like this, which makes me want to dive back in and find out. I haven’t read as many books this year as I did last year—few people have—but without question, Samantha Hunt’s will end up near the top of my list for 2017.


December 23, 2017: “Friday Afternoon” by T.D. Johnston

Hello, Story366 enthusiasts! As promised last Friday, I’m going to be doing these posts again and more often, though I really didn’t think it would take me a whole week to post another. I can insert of story about grading and finals and Christmas shopping and Christmas baking, but I’m sure you now that story, so go ahead and add the specific details for yourself. Today specifically I did get out to the mall—we needed a picture of the boys with Santa, as we have one for each year since the oldest was born—and that was of course a nightmare. Because I’m stupid, I have to go back out one more time, and … well, I’m stupid and I have go back to the mall one more time.

It doesn’t seem like it’s been a week since I wrote about Kim Chinquee, but it has. In that time, Kim has announced another new story collection coming out next year, which is the first a two-book contract, so plenty more Kim Chinquee on its way. I won’t claim that Story366 had anything to do with that, but if I wanted to make a case for a Story366 bump, I have my case study.

I still made it back from the mall in time to hide the gifts I bought—I’ll wrap them later, when everyone else is asleep, while I watch Bright, which has gotten such terrible reviews today that I’m morbidly excited to experience it for myself. I also finally got to T.D. Johnston‘s collection, Friday Afternoon and Other Stories (Battersea Books, 2016), which I’ve had for forever and was happy to finally crack. I’d never read anything by Johnston before, so this is one of those times I went into a collection with zero preconceptions, which I kind of like, as I like surprises.

What’s not a surprise is that I’m choosing the title story to focus on for this post, which I tend to do. “Friday Afternoon” is the story of Bryce, a guy in a BMW who’s trying to get to his father-in-law’s birthday party in Charlotte. The story starts with Bryce riding along a two-lane highway, stuck behind a pickup truck that has the audacity to be going five MPH less than the speed limit (it also sports a “Jesus Saves” bumper sticker, an important detail). We soon find out that to Bryce, this is a serious offense, as we hear through narration and his thoughts (by the way, thoughts are given to us in italics, in separate paragraphs, and occur quite often) that being late to this party will make him look bad; Bryce’s father-in-law the type of father-in-law who has never accepted Bryce, which sucks for Bryce, because Bryce works for his father-in-law, selling decorative floor coverings. Not that Bryce is a victim here: He’s pretty much an asshole, speeding along in his Beamer, waving his arms, and insulting the other drivers on the road—especially the driver of the pickup—calling them rednecks and goobers. The guy in the pickup with the Jesus Saves sticker eventually becomes Goober, which is one of those weird life coincidences, as I ate a box of Goobers tonight as I worked on this post:


In any case, Bryce seems like a throwback from the eighties, hair slicked back, his car’s ridiculousness on par with his disdain for “regular” people. Johnston even incites Gordon Gecko, so yeah, that’s the kind of guy Bryce is, stuck behind a Jesus-loving, pickup-driving good ‘ol boy in North Carolina.

The story takes a turn when Bryce attempts to pass Goober in the left lane (probably my personal least-favorite thing to do in the world), which is what we’re supposed to do when behind slower traffic instead of bitching about it. The catch is there’s a chicken truck coming straight at him in the other lane (adding to the idiom “playing chicken”), Goober right next to him, leaving nowhere for him to go. In a flash of white light, Bryce closes his eyes, waits for the inevitable pain that will proceed his death, still angry at everyone but himself.

Instead of death, Bryce somehow makes it through, though Goober and his pickup are wrecked on the side of the road, the truck on its side in a ditch. Bryce’s conscience tries telling him to turn around, to see if Goober needs help, but Bryce—still running late for that party—convinces himself that everyone is fine, everything is fine, and drives on. Bryce, faced with a choice, chooses the self-serving.

Things really go south for Bryce immediately after when his tire pops and he’s forced to the side of the road. His phone—which seems to be the old car phone type of phone, not anything cellular—can’t get ahold of AAA. Because he’s a fucking knob, he won’t get out of the car and change the tire himself, so he’s kind of stuck there. To make things even worse, Goober, in his pickup, pulls up behind him and wants to help, insists on changing the tire. This would be a windfall of good luck, except, you know, Bryce had just run him off the road and left him to die. So, things are tense

“Friday Afternoon” is a rather long story, weighing in at thirty-five pages or so, meaning Johnston gives himself the space to let things develop. The tire-changing scene takes its time, as there’s all kinds of tension between Bryce and Wilson Emblen (Goober’s real name), Bryce torn between wanting Wilson to leave and wanting Wilson to change his tire. Bryce’s answer to all this? Give Wilson twenty bucks to hurry the hell up. If Johnston hadn’t established Bryce as a class-A piece of shit, this pretty much puts him over the top.

At this point, we’re only about a third of the way through the story, so there’s a whole lot left that I won’t go into. I will say that Wilson does realize that Bryce is the one who forced him off the road, and I reveal that Wilson takes the tire iron to Bryce’s head and dumps him in his trunk. From there, you’ll have to read “Friday Afternoon” to find out what happens next.

I enjoyed this selection because of all the plot that Johnston is able to cram into one story, thirty-five pages or not, the pacing always swift and the surprises always aplenty: I never knew what was going to happen and kept reading to find out where things were going next. For such a long piece, “Friday Afternoon” is really well paced, steady and always paying off with a new character, a change of scene, something really messed up that I couldn’t have predicted. Johnston uses those italicized thoughts to his advantage, as Bryce never says what he’s thinking, making the inner conflict as serious as the outer (though Johnston employs this exact same technique in another story I read, “The Guest”). As a way to depict unreliability, this is as effective a method as any, if not a bit intrusive at times.

There’s also some serious religious overtones in this story, starting with the “Jesus Saves” sticker and running at a sprint from there. Wilson comes off as an emissary of God in a lot of ways, and after a while, every element of the story plays the part of a possible metaphor. There’s a Last Supper, lots of talk of nameless merchants, and the title, “Friday Afternoon,” almost definitely referring to the time Christ spent on Calvary. I’d bet my First Communion rosary that “Wilson Emblen” is an anagram for something like “John the Baptist” or maybe “Sleen Ionblow,” and if I had the energy, I’d spread the letters out on a piece of paper and try to figure it out (I don’t).

There’s a real urgency to all the stories I read from Friday Afternoon, as Johnston seems to have a plan in each story, plans that more or less involve redeeming undesirable protagonists. Johnston also seems to have fun with his stories and fun with fiction-writing techniques, as he’s not afraid to employ things like thought-separating italics or questionable realities when he needs them to tell his tales. I can tell from his book, from interacting with him a bit online, and from what his teachers and friends say about him in his blurbs that Tim Johnston really loves to write stories. That enthusiasm certainly rears its head in Friday Afternoon.


December 16, 2017: “The Top Shelf” by Kim Chinquee

Well, hey there, stranger! It’s a been a while since I’ve posted on Story366—May 9, to be exact—which in my calculation is over six months ago. I never planned on taking such a big break, and have, just about every day, thought about picking up a new collection and doing a post. I just … didn’t. I’ve even had today’s book in my laptop case since summer, since before a big family vacation, meaning this book went with me to a dozen or so states without me cracking the spine. Again, I never foresaw such a leave of absence, but hey now, since I was 366 for 366 last year, whoever said this year is about planning?

I come to you today somewhat because my grades for the fall semester have been turned in, meaning I’m embarking on a month off from my professor gig. I’d like to get a good start on things, set up some good habits, and since I don’t think I’ll be traveling this next month—Christmas in Missouri!—I should be able to settle into some kind of routine. I have a lot of collections to read and write about, so I hope to do more of these before the spring semester starts (and if you have a new story collection you’d like me to write about here, please drop me a line so I can tell you how to get me that book).

Oh, I also got the calendar alert that it’s Kim’s birthday tomorrow, though I thought originally it said it was today, which lit a fire under me, putting the idea my head to do this post.

It’s tempting, after so much time away, to play catch up, tell my Story366 readers where I’ve been, but I don’t think anyone’s too concerned about that. Still, here’s a rundown of my activities since May 9: I started running every day. I dedicated a lot of time to fixing up our house, especially the outside, which resulted in a killer garden. The fam and I headed west for two weeks, visiting six National Parks, Disneyland sandwiched in-between. I worked at thirty-one Cubs’ games, including two rounds of playoffs. I went camping with the Boy Scouts a couple of times and have found myself in a minor leader role. I can vividly picture what my wife, kids, and cat look like. I make eggs every morning.

I’ve led a full life.

Back to short stories.

I’ve known Kim Chinquee and her work for a long time now. Both of us are alum of the University of Illinois, which is how I think we started talking to each other. Both of us were on the job market at relatively the same time (probably in direct competition for a while). Both of us publish in literary magazines fairly often. Both of us go to AWP every year and run into each other. So, I know Kim, you know, from the block (but not from writer’s block). Along the way, I’ve had the pleasure of reading quite a few of her shorts, short stories, and books, so I was more than happy to hear about Veer coming out this past May (from Ravenna Press) and to obtain a copy for this project.

Veer is a book of shorts, save one normal-length story, and is cut into five parts. The first three parts have a long series of shorts, the fourth part is comprised entirely of that normal-length story, then Part Five has more shorts. I read a handful of stories from each section, wanting to get a good feel of the entire book to write this post, and tried to figure out how Chinquee split things up. At first glance, it seems like the stories in the first three sections are thematically linked to each other—most all of them involve sexual encounters of some kind—while the final part seems to delve into other notions. If I read the entire book, I could perhaps see the method to her delineations, but I can say this for sure: The stories in each part have appeared in different magazines; the acknowledgments on the colophon tell that the stories in Part One were in Noon, the stories in Part Two in Denver Quarterly, etc.; from what I can surmise, that means that all thirty-nine stories—39!—from Part One appeared in Noon. Either Diane Williams really likes Chinquee’s work (the likely case) or Kim gave her a kidney (hard to tell without asking). Either way, I’ve never seen a book sectioned off by where the stories (or poems or whathaveyou) were published—though that would make sense if there’s a deeper connection I’m missing.

A collection that features so many stories makes it hard to choose just one to write about, so I’ll cop out and go with the lead piece, “The Top Shelf.” This story, at less than three pages, sticks in my head for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it features one of the longer narratives of any of the pieces I’ve read. Secondly, it’s got a weirdish premise—mother and daughter pick up guys together at a bar—and I like weirdish. Lastly, it incorporates Chinquee’s themes as well as any other story, so it’s kind of easy to talk about.

“The Top Shelf” is about a woman who’s about to ship off to Basic Training, so her mom takes her out to a bar for some drinks, even though she’s not old enough, Mom convincing the bouncers because she’s a regular (very regular, we find out). Soon—like within half a page down—Mom has eased up to an older gentleman named George, while George’s pal, the equally older Tom, takes a shine to our protagonist and narrator. Before we know it, George invites the ladies to his hotel room for some drinks and the ladies oblige.

From there, things get heated and get heated quickly. George makes some bloody Marys, he and Mom start to get busy on his bed, so Tom suggests to our hero that they take a walk, give the new lovers the room to themselves. At this point, I’m thinking that Tom is maybe more of a decent guy, i.e., he’s not going to try to bed this young woman because, you know, ewww. But I’m wrong: Tom and the protagonist go at it in the stairway as soon as they leave the room, and, well, yeah. That gives away an awful lot, but as I said, this is a short and these early stories feature sexual encounters, so, if you want surprise, there’s seventy or so other stories in the book to read to find out if the characters did it with each other or not.

Of course, to say this story is about the sexual encounter would be trivializing Chinquee’s talent, style, and efforts. Sure, most of the protagonists in the stories I read had sex over the course of the story, but I think Veer isn’t really about the sex, but the repercussions of the sex. No, scratch that: I can’t say this story, or this book, is about what happens to people who have questionable sexual encounters, as really, the stories are too short for Chinquee to reveal that; the author tends to end on an image, a line of dialogue, a turn of a more subtle nature. We don’t know what happens to the woman telling us her story in “The Top Shelf” after she and her mother leave the Holiday Inn, after she goes off to Basic, what she thinks about, how the encounter with Tom affects her, short term or long term. I think the point of this book is that we don’t have to: After so many stories featuring regrettable encounters—and this stairwell tryst is certainly one of the more consensual affairs—the book seems to be about how easy it is for these incidents to happen, how common they are, and Chinquee gets that point across not only in the individual stories, but through repetition, telling us about them, time after time after time. It’s really easy for a young woman to get coerced, be it via rape or this scenario here in “The Top Shelf,” than it’s pleasurable to say. And here in 2017, with the daily revelations about our politicians, journalists, and celebrities committing so many atrocities, can any book have been more relevant, a more fitting choice with which to jump back into this project?

Still, that’s not to say that every character in every story is a victim. They’re not—it would be ignorant to paint every woman who has sex as a victim, as certainly, many of Chinquee’s characters make a choice. And some of the stories don’t even involve sex. I should also mention that in several of the stories, Chinquee herself seems to be the narrator, referring to herself in the most direct metafictional ways, as Kim Chinquee. After reading twenty-five stories, though, I see a theme, the feel that I take from Veer.

I’ve always been a fan of Kim Chinquee’s writing, not only her stories, but her technical proficiency, her imagery, the way she strings together one poignant sentence after another. Veer is a powerful book, and oftentimes, a sad book, but it’s gorgeously written, and has been worth carrying around in my bag all these months (as if it’s my Catcher in the Rye, minus the assassination attempts). Chances are, if you’re reading this post, you’ve read Chinquee before. Whether you have or haven’t, Veer is an experience, a treat.