“You can’t hesitate and survive,” says Gabriel Hap, in Steven Schwartz’s story “Indie.” Years before, Gabriel’s high-school history teacher held his class hostage with an antique pistol. Gabriel stood to try to take the gun from him, an act which arguably resulted in someone’s death. Gabriel is an adult now, a soldier, telling the story as a lesson to new recruits: “The point is you have to know you’re doing the right thing and not second guess.”
Steven Schwartz’s collection Little Raw Souls is filled with people trying to make peace with things. Each of these stories deals with what to make of endings: of careers, of relationships, of lives. Gabriel may be unreflective, but perhaps he must be: this is his way of making peace with what he has seen, and his advice to the rest of us. Don’t hesitate. Don’t second guess.
The other characters in Little Raw Souls, for the most part, do not follow this advice.
In “Stranger,” a woman who has not come to terms yet with her father’s recent death, or perhaps with her mother’s death thirty-one years earlier, contemplates an affair with a charming alcoholic she’s met in an airport bar. Why? Because her father continued to refer to himself and his deceased wife as “we,” present tense, until he died. Because something huge and out of her control has trapped her at the airport. Because making a bad decision seems somehow to be a way of correcting what can’t be corrected: the thirty-one years her father didn’t have a wife and she didn’t have a mother.
The protagonist of “Seeing Miles” meets with the cousin he once had a painful adolescent crush on. It is years later; the cousin has undergone gender reassignment surgery. He seems to enjoy teasing the protagonist, or perhaps the protagonist only wants to think that he is being teased. The fact that he still feels some sexual tension towards his cousin only underscores the story’s larger point: the moment when he could have acted on that crush, if it ever existed, is far gone.
In “Absolute Zero,” to my mind the strongest story of the collection, a high school student named Conner plans to join the Marines against the wishes of his dying mother. “I’m killing her before she dies,” Conner says, to a Marine recruiter who is trying very hard to be his father figure.
I’m sure you love your mother a whole lot more than you can say,” says the recruiter. Like many people, has no idea what to say to other people’s pain.
“I don’t see the contradiction,” Conner answers.
In each case, what the story is interested in isn’t a character’s present-day choices, but whether and how she makes peace with choices already made, the opportunities let pass. Whether she will persist in second guessing herself, years afterwards.
The prose throughout is confident, clear; like much good realist prose, it doesn’t call much attention to itself. One gets the impression of an author who knows what he’s doing, and does it well. Perhaps this book doesn’t risk much. Perhaps the author doesn’t need to. Phrases like “well-crafted” and “polished” come to mind.
Except, occasionally, at the end of stories. For a book so concerned with things ending, it’s interesting that several of the endings themselves seem ill-judged, sometimes outright desperate. The final image of “Bless Everybody,” the first story in the collection, is of the narrator throwing the castrated testicles of a poached buck on a wildlife officer’s desk. It’s an act that makes sense only on the level of metaphor, and seems out of place in this otherwise well-rendered realist story. In “The Last Communist,” we learn in the final two paragraphs that the narrator has secretly been in touch for years with a character we’d been led to believe had...