- Damage on the Border
The thing about short story collections is that they can be a lot like Old Country Buffet or a greatest hits CD from Britney Spears. There will always be some highlights, some things you recognize, and even some things you love. There will also be reaches: Britney eschews Auto-Tune, Old Country Buffet tries to get all heart healthy. And then there will be the misses, and the filler, the stories that don't belong or totally cut it. None of which is to say you can't find enjoyment, even genius with Britney, see "Oops!...I Did It Again," or Old Country Buffet for that matter: chicken fried steak, anyone?
Still, what makes for a great short story collection, and what does that mean for Short Bus, the aurally, and visually, arresting new collection from Brian Allen Carr?
Arguably, the stories in great collections hang together, they feel like there are of a piece, and one way they do this is by evoking a sense of time and place, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981) by Raymond Carver, for example; Drown (1996) by Junot Díaz or Big World (2009) by Mary Miller. We know these stories are from somewhere, and because of the writing, we accept that this somewhere is believable and makes sense, even if we don't know the Bronx or the Pacific Northwest based on any kind of personal experience.
Carr accomplishes this certainly, capturing the flavor, smell, and taste of the border areas between Texas and Mexico, a place few of us actually know, but think we understand via some weird kind of magic courtesy of watching CNN and Robert Rodriguez movies. The richness of the area, and Carr's efforts to illuminate it, is nicely exemplified in the following passage from the story "Over the Border": "One thoroughfare with unpaved tributaries fanning toward barrios, dirtier and more dilapidated the further from Benito Juarez Avenue, the musical street, with buildings painted so bright, like Easter eggs in the sunshine...."
Carr's stories pop with all sorts of vivid imagery like this, and they have to, because short stories have such little time to sell you on why to bother reading them, and why to believe. There has to be a wow moment, a passage that draws you in, and pulls you far enough along that the story can take over. Carr does this again and again throughout the collection; in the opening story, "Running the Drain," he writes, "In the evenings the woman at the inn will slaughter a chicken and roast it over an open flame. The skin will crack and pop as the coals burn bright red below. ... I'll sleep with the innkeeper's daughter. Her teenaged body already mature. She'll smell like a cinnamon toasting in a cast-iron pan."
Great stories also have to be able to punch you in the gut, though. This can be with humor or pain, but there is an obligation to find and develop ideas that knock you out in a neat and vivid fashion, quickly, cleanly, and with strong execution, the lack of length requiring the writer to figure this out with an economy of words. And Carr does this as well, though maybe no more effectively than in the closing story, "Baby Grand Dangle," a personal favorite, where a lot of things are going on all at once, but ultimately still revolve around one simple and endlessly torturous idea: is the person I love carrying my baby or not, and how far will I go to ignore thinking about this all the time? Carr captures this feeling powerfully in several spots including the following passage: [End Page 19]
Meredith comes to the doorway of the kitchen as I wash dishes. She leans against the jam.
"Should I leave?" she asks.
I look at her. "Where would you go?"
I put my hand into the soapy water. I move it slowly, because I know there's a knife.