Thursday, April 11, 2013

Good Short Fiction: Several Tales from 50 Great American Short Stories

Collection: 50 Great American Short Stories
Editor: Milton Crane

Title: Cluney McFarrar's Hardtack
Author: John McNulty

During the Second World War, a veteran of the First World War talks about some of his experiences fighting overseas. He focuses on one night, after a battle, when he doubles back to snatch up some hardtack dropped by a fallen soldier. Everything in the story gathers towards the moment when he's about to enter the dark and silent wood full of the bodies of dead soldiers.


Title: A Dead Issue
Author: Charles M. Flandrau

This one is written elegantly and incisively, about a man in his early thirties who turns out looking foolish when he returns to teach at his old alma mater, Harvard. Even though he's at least a decade older than most of them, he fraternizes with the undergraduates at the club he used to belong to when he was a student; at the same time, he feels isolated from people closer to his own age.

The story brilliantly shows his need to be liked and to belong somewhere, and how he has trouble leaving the security of that old club and its easy associations. Maybe he recalls with nostalgia the friendship of his own classmates, bonds of fellowship that he thought would stay with him and support him throughout his life; he thinks he can recreate those bonds with a younger generation. Because he hasn't moved on, he risks compromising his principles as a teacher to be chummy with the students. They're young and self-centered and carefree, and they show him an easygoing friendliness that doesn't mean much. How will the main character find his place in life as he grows older, with his face still turned towards the past?


Title: Death in the Woods
Author: Sherwood Anderson

A woman is found dead in the woods. Who was she, and how did she die? The story is a mix of conjecture and fact, a narrative pieced together out of likely scenarios based on some past glimpses into the woman's life. No one knew enough or cared enough about her in life, which she spent in grinding poverty and, most signs point to it, abuse; the driving force of her existence was a need to feed the animals in her care. It's only in death that people notice her and wonder. Now she's feeding their imagination.


Title: Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland
Author: Carson McCullers

Madame Zilensky is a brilliant composer and teacher. She arrives at a new college, three children in tow, her appearance scruffy and dramatic and her eyes shadowed. The head of the music department, Mr. Brook, is curious about her. Her musical gifts are undeniable. It's only the stories about her personal life that give him pause. McCullers has created a memorable character in Madame Zilensky and through her has given us insight into one of the reasons we tell stories.


Title: Mr. Preble Gets Rid of His Wife
Author: James Thurber

A man decides to kill his wife so that he can run away with his stenographer. Convincing his wife to be a good sport and go along with it proves difficult.


Title: The Outcasts of Poker Flat
Author: Francis Bret Harte

A low-key, quietly moving story set in the Wild West. The town of Poker Flat has kicked out some of its unsavory residents, including a gambler named Oakhurst. As these outcasts try to make it to the nearest town, which is many miles away, they come across young lovers who've run off on their own to elope. Treachery and foul weather throw the two parties together, and as they try to survive, they're stripped of their reputations and their personal histories. What remains then?


Title: To Build a Fire
Author: Jack London

I still remember a terrifying image from this story: a man running in a panic on feet he can no longer feel. Also, the painstaking details of how he tries to build a fire that will stand between him and the cold. Set in the Klondike, the story doesn't show Nature locked in a personal confrontation with a heroic man. The cold is indifferent and vast, creeping over and into everything. It's impersonal, and the man gets caught up in it because he's foolish enough to be outside. You witness his struggles – the missteps, poor judgment, bad luck, last-ditch efforts – while feeling how helpless he is in a cold and brutal world.


Other stories from this collection include: The Damned Thing; Silent Snow, Secret Snow; The Blue-Winged Teal; The National Pastime; The Girls in Their Summer Dresses; A New England Nun.