Posted in Short Stories

Lisa Koger: Bypass

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 5

Friday night and Earl has a taste for chicken. The craving slipped up on him, fox-like, sometime late in the afternoon. Tonight, he doesn’t want Ruth’s Crispy or Wanda’s Golden Fried or chicken from any of the other joints in town. 

In Lisa Koger’s short story “Bypass”, Earl is trapped in a loveless marriage and a small town he had hoped to leave a long time ago. And she brilliantly encompasses these unfulfilled desires in Earl’s craving for fried chicken on a Friday night. He eagerly buys a chicken that he hopes he and his wife can fry together. Of course, this doesn’t happen; however, Earl doesn’t let this keep him from doing it himself.

As odd as this sounds, Koger makes this story work. I couldn’t help but root for Earl as he attempts to do something that might at least temporarily bring him out of the doldrums in which he finds himself. Earl isn’t just grabbing a frying pan. He’s taking one step, even if it’s a small one, away from the depression that can keep him locked up and tied down. Though the ending doesn’t reveal how far Earl gets, I feel there’s hope somewhere in the future for him.

The title refers to the highway that goes around Earl’s hometown of Farlanburg but it might represent more:

Earl didn’t want the bypass, and he has nothing to sell. He’s suspicious of people who spend millions of dollars to take him around something when he can see more by passing through.

Going only by my personal enjoyment, of the five stories I’ve read so far in 2020, this is my favorite. It’s one of the best stories I’ve read about middle-age. It’s included in Home and Beyond: An Anthology of Kentucky Short Stories edited by Morris Allen Grubbs. I read it when I selected the Jack of Clubs for Week 5 of my Deal Me In 2020 short story project. Check out my Deal Me In 2020 list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Have you read any stories about middle-age? Which ones would you recommend?

Posted in Short Stories

Ralph Ellison: Battle Royal

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 4

It goes a long way back, some twenty years. All my life I had been looking for something and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was naive.

Ralph Ellison’s short story “Battle Royal” became the first chapter in his most memorable work, the novel Invisible Man according to the introduction to the story by Joyce Carol Oates as editor of the anthology The Oxford Book of American Short Stories. Oates also goes on to say that it can still stand on its own. I read it when I selected the Four of Spades for Week 4 of my Deal Me In 2020 short story project. Check out my Deal Me In 2020 list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Ellison uses the social contradictions of the story’s setting to create a more nuanced struggle in the mind of the narrator.

The narrator is a young, intelligent and educated African-American man who is invited to give his graduation speech to a group of distinguished white males. The white males, however, grossly and treacherously mock the African-American men invited to the meeting including the narrator prior to the delivery of the speech.

The narrator still goes ahead with his speech while attempting to reconcile the horrors of this meeting with his speech’s call for social responsibility. The speech seems very naive, as the narrator states at the beginning of the story. But I had to ask the question: is he naive or is he just hopeful? And is there a difference?

Have you read anything by Ralph Ellison? What are your thoughts on his work?


Posted in Fiction

Virgil Wander by Leif Enger

It only took me three days to read Leif Enger’s third novel Virgil Wander. I read his other two which are also pictured above while I was taking a break from blogging. I’ll try to write something about them soon. All of them are great but Virgil takes the prize for favorite.

When the title character accidentally drives into Lake Superior and is then rescued, he gets what might be called a new lease on life. In fact, he refers to himself before the accident as “the previous tenant”.  It’s not so much a drastic change as a subtle one, but its a change nonetheless. The “previous” Virgil probably wouldn’t have invited a kite-flying Norwegian stranger to share his apartment – but the new one does.

Virgil runs the local movie house in Greenstone, Minnesota on the banks of Lake Superior where the movies he shows are still on reels of film as opposed to digital. He lets on that he is a failed theology student who “ran out of God”. His change after his baptism of sorts is more one of perspective. All the bad things about his situation are still there. He just sees them in a different light. Nor does he shy away from them anymore.

Somewhat of a loner, Virgil still lives within his community but now he is more willing to get involved with people with the help of his new kite-flying friend. Toward the end, he has the thought that “your tribe is always bigger than you think.”

This novel reminds me in some ways of Wendell Berry’s stories of Port William, Kentucky, especially Jayber Crow, I’m curious if Enger intends to write more about the folks in Greenstone. I’d love to hear about them.

There is also something slightly personal about the novel in that I lived in Hibbing, Minnesota for a brief time when I was growing up. Located on the Mesabi Iron Range, Hibbing isn’t far away from where Greenstone is fictionally (I think) located. It’s mentioned briefly in the novel as a place where someone’s sister is from. It also happens to be the birthplace of Robert Zimmerman who later became known as Bob Dylan. In the novel there is a running joke about how Greenstone’s mayor, Lydia, keeps a correspondence with Dylan who always turns down her request to headline at Greenstone’s annual festival “Hard Luck Days” (great name!). But then this happens at the end of the novel:

Last spring Bob Dylan overcame his wariness and played our Main Street stage. I missed it, but Lydia went with a lemon pie, and ate it with Dylan after the show. She reports he said little, but his eyes were expressive. He called the pie “better than the Nobel.”






Posted in Short Stories

Gayl Jones: White Rat

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 3

I learned where she was when Cousin Willie come down home and said Maggie sent for her but told her not to tell nobody where she was, especially me, but Cousin Willie come and told me anyway cause she said I was the lessen two evils…

Gayl Jones’ short story “White Rat” is like a quick punch in the gut over and over again – specifically each time a racial slur is used of which there are plenty.

But this story isn’t meant to be comfortable- at least, hopefully, readers don’t find it comfortable.

The title of the story is the narrator’s nickname given to him by his family. He’s of mixed race and gets mistaken for being white on numerous occasions. The memories the narrator recounts present the damage done to people who live in a world where this matters.

While I’ve read stories with this theme that have been more violent and shows hatred on a grander scale, Jones uses “White Rat” to show the horrors of racial prejudice in the details of everyday life.

I read this story for Week 3 of my Deal Me In 2020 short story project when I selected the Seven of Diamonds. It’s included in Home and Beyond: An Anthology of Kentucky Short Stories edited by Morris Allen Grubbs. Check out my Deal Me In 2020 list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

This is the first work by Gayl Jones that I’ve read. Has anyone else read any of her works? Anything that you would recommend?

Posted in Short Stories

Jean Stafford: Children Are Bored on Sunday

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 2

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Emma spots Alfred Eisenburg at a distance. This is how Jean Stafford’s short story “Children Are Bored on Sunday” begins. After this, Emma, our third person narrator, goes into a stream of consciousness about the differences between intellectuals and rubes. She considers herself one of the latter because of her Great Uncle Graham’s farm.

As Emma ruminates, Stafford drops in lots of paintings and artists that gives the reader the idea that Emma is more knowledgeable than she gives herself credit. Many of the intellectuals Emma thinks about and remembers from her younger days could be considered pseudo-intellectuals or at least shallow intellectuals. Though this is never specifically brought up in the story, Stafford just might be suggesting that there is a difference between a person who is an intellectual and a person who is intelligent. Emma might be considered the latter as opposed to the rube she thinks of herself as.

One of my favorite of Emma’s thoughts goes like this:

Thus she continued secretly to believe (but never to confess) that the apple Eve had eaten tasted exactly like those she had eaten when she was a child visiting on her Great-Uncle Graham’s farm, and that Newton’s observation was no news in spite of all the hue and cry. Half the apples she had eaten had fallen out of the tree, whose branches she had shaken for this very purpose, and the Apple Experience included both the descent of the fruit and the consumption of it, and Eve and Newton and Emma understood one another perfectly in this particular of reality.

And then there is Alfred, with whom, after following for the entire story, Emma finally makes contact at the end and the reader might wonder why she has been so hesitant. He seems a quite decent fellow:

Their recognition of each other was instantaneous and absolute, for they cunningly saw that they were children and that, if they wished, they were free for the rest of this winter Sunday to play together, quite naked, quite innocent. “What a day it is! What a place!” said Alfred Eisenburg. “Can I buy you a drink, Emma? Have you time?”

This is the second story by Jean Stafford that I’ve read. The other one is The Interior Castle which also utilizes a stream of consciousness approach.

This story is included in the collection Wonderful Town: New York Stories from The New Yorker edited by David Remnick. I read it when I selected the Four of Hearts for Week 2 of my Deal Me In 2020 short story project. Check out my Deal Me In 2020 list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

What about you? How many Jean Stafford stories have you read? What are your favorites?


Posted in Short Stories

Raymond Carver: Where I’m Calling From


Deal Me In 2020 – Week 1

If she answers, I’ll wish her a Happy New Year. But that’s it. I won’t bring up business. I won’t raise my voice. Not even if she starts something. She’ll ask me where I’m calling from, and I’ll have to tell her. I won’t say anything about New Year’s resolutions. There’s no way to make a joke out of this.

Week 1 of Deal Me In 2020 brings me to the Nine of Spades and Raymond Carver’s short story “Where I’m Calling From” which is only the second Carver story I’ve read, the first being “Are These Actual Miles”. Check out my Deal Me In 2020 list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.  This story is included in The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike. Since we are pretty much two decades into the 21st century, I might add that the title of this anthology refers to the 20th century. It’s also fun when the Deal Me In fates give me a story for Week 1 that at least mentions New Year’s.

“Where I’m Calling From” contains a coldness and a hard facade that covers the emotion buried deep in the narrator’s alcoholic condition. The narrator, who doesn’t have a name, meets J. P., another alcoholic, at a “drying-out” facility. The narrator gladly listens to J.P’s story while recalling memories of his own story. The intersecting of these stories gives Carver’s narrative the intrigue I needed to get drawn into it. Because of Carver’s writing, I felt a little like the narrator:

“Then what?” I say. “Don’t stop now, J.P.” I was interested. But I would have listened if he’d been going on about how one day he’d decided to start pitching horseshoes.

Depression laces the memories of the narrator but he has one memory that brings a smile to his face and to the reader’s – giving the story a quick shot of warmth before ending. Speaking of “warmth”, after the narrator recounts this memory, he then remembers Jack London’s short story “To Build A Fire”. The warmth in Carver’s story probably sticks around as long as it does in London’s story.