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Dr. Strangelove
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It seems as though short stories are a dying art, replaced by a never-ending stream of flash fiction, so it’s refreshing to see a collection with hardly a piece shy of five thousand words, especially when they are as expertly crafted as the dozen stories comprising Steve Yates’s Some Kinds of Love. The Juniper Prize winning collection begins with “Starfall,” set in an Ozark mountain town in the mid-nineteenth century, a “coming-to-town” tale following a Native American outsider who rides in and shakes things up by dint of his drive and verve in this placid setting. He has apparently found a millstone in the river and wants to use it to start a mill. The townsfolk see him as an interloper who will upset the social fabric, and it doesn’t help that he’s good looking, confident, and a problem solver. Yates works comfortably with period material, obviously having researched the era thoroughly, but also restraining himself from a deluge of details, sharing only a handful of pertinent but telling details that serve to make the setting genuine. This is true of all of his period pieces, of which there are several in this collection. “Starfall” evolves into a love story (as one would expect from the book’s title—a neat reference to a Velvet Underground song) but his ending, which I won’t spoil, addresses the concerns of the townsfolk nicely and also shifts the story from a well-crafted romance to something much more real and enjoyable. As was demonstrated in his first book, the novel Morkan’s Quarry (2010), we see that he’s a master craftsman with an eye for wit and humanization in his characters.

“Pleasures of the Neighborhood,” the second piece, is something else altogether. It tells the story of an entomologist conducting a kind of sexual experiment on his neighbor, a married woman who enjoys eating. As her girth expands, he measures and keeps meticulous notes, all of which drives him into a sexual frenzy, which she happily obliges. From my workshop days, I recall that the “unusual sex” story is often a favorite, but it usually fizzles after the premise is established because there just is not anywhere else to go with it. Yates manages, however, to tell an intriguing, human story which soon becomes a power struggle between the entomologist and his neighbor’s husband for the affections of the stunningly obese Donna Prince. Yates has written a character study of a quite unusual personality type with this entomologist, and yet he pulls it off.

“Homecoming” is another well-crafted period piece, involving a German family returning home after the cease-fire following the Civil War. “New Father” follows a divorced father on a weekend with his son as he begins to realize what his new role really is. “Hunter, Seeker” is a mystery which avoids devolving into a procedural, and “The Fencing Lady” is a quite enjoyable story of karmic comeuppance and coming of age. Yates’s strength as a writer is in his eye for detail and his ability to create believable, likeable characters. He slips into different time periods and personality types that would be very difficult for a lesser writer to pull off; But he’s also capable of handling some tough material. “The Green Tomato Marquesa’s Night of a Thousand and One Triumphs” is a story involving two very hard to write characters. The main character is a terrorist, of the Taliban, hoping to deal a critical blow to the Great Satan. The second, the love interest, is an eccentric librarian who comes very close to being one of those sassy Southern-belle types who populate the South in bad movies. Yates puts these two together in an engaging and enjoyable story that plays with stereotypes without ever dangling its toes into the waters of cliché or convention. It’s difficult territory he navigates because it would be so easy to devolve into easy, familiar story-telling, but Yates even manages a solid, twist-ending (though, of course, it is inevitable) that made, me, as one reader, actually like this Vegetable Queen in training.

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