Relationships and the complex emotions they engender are the subject matter of the 10 stories in Dianne Warren's second collection, Bad Luck Dog. Warren's characters are unremarkable people. Beset with tragedy, they are incapable of altering their circumstances, or even of articulating their desires.
In "Devil's Hill," Stevie pumps gas at a Shell station, while her boyfriend, Joel, works on a highway paving crew. Joel hopes to take over the Esso station owned by Gary and his agoraphobic wife, Lynn, but he is obsessed with the death of his brother and the short sentence his murderer received. Stevie realizes that those around her are trapped in the misery of past events. She cannot help them; she can only leave. Sylvia, in "The Way We Live," begins an affair with R. Whatever it is that Sylvia wants, she is no more able to find it with R. than with Eddy, the guitarist with whom she lives. Sylvia fears the possible consequences of change. She becomes obsessed with a young man who washes dishes in a cafeteria where she sometimes eats lunch. Like the cafeteria's other employees, the dishwasher is a psychiatric patient. In the title story, the narrator's father, Fred, believes he is hounded by bad luck.
His wife dies; he loses his job; he moves from town to town. At the end of the story, Fred juggles rocks beside a lake in the mountains:
Rising and falling, briefly touching my father's hands, then rising again. I saw an old hound dog stretched out at his feet, resting, watching with lazy eyes. My father never missed a beat.
Happiness and good luck, if they can be found, are tenuous. Warren's character's cling to what they have, which is, most often, the past.
Warren is clearly one of a new generation of short-story writers who have teamed their craft in the wake of such contemporary luminaries as Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, and Bobbie Ann Mason. Her prose is lucid and precise. Nothing is hidden, but neither is anything given away. That said, Warren offers little that is new. Her characters seem distant and insignificant and are quickly forgotten. This is writing to applaud, but not to shout about.
One wants to like the 11 stories in J. Jill Robinson's second collection, Lovely in Her Bones. They portray angry and emotionally battered women, who look to the past both for the cause of their suffering and to escape the present. Some are alcoholic; others must come to terms with mothers who have rejected them. But the strong emotions these stories depict are rendered merely pathetic by the dullness of the writing. Robinson's women are mere shadows, unable to engage the reader's empathy.
This is unfortunate. Robinson's first collection of stories, Saltwater Trees, was remarkable for the sharp edges of its prose and the depth of its characterization. It is difficult to believe that Lovely in Her Bones was written by the same person. In the opening story, "Fairbanks," an unnamed narrator, studying at a university in Alaska, suffers from isolation:
I am always alone. Always thinking. In, and in, and in unto myself. I tell you, the whole world is the inside of my head. And I think one day, only 1, in the whole wide world, am thinking these thoughts, feeling these feelings, right now.
The story moves in no particular direction and arrives at none. The abstract language evokes little. A few stories succeed in engaging the reader's interest. In "Hiding Among the Trees," Peggy must endure the death of a father she loved, and then the death of a mother she hated. An alcoholic, Peggy is helped by her relationship with Monica, and is eventually able to forgive her mother. Peggy's alcoholic state is powerfully rendered through poetic imagery and sentence fragments. This is a moving and wellwritten story. But the good stories are outnumbered by the weaker ones, in which convoluted imagery and sentence structures compete with bland characterization and sentiments. In "Finding Linette," the narrator and her three sisters rediscover their collective past:
We have talked, too, about our plagues of individual unhappiness. They have come, will come, at different times. Mine is over, for the time being, anyway. I've stopped drinking, smoking. I seem truly happy, say my sisters, and they are right. Mamie's is too, I think, or at least she is irrevocably on the way. Laurel's is in full black and red blossom, and Roberta's is still gestating, bubbling, building inside.
This "story" was co-winner of Event's Creative Non-Fiction Contest in 1992. That such writing not only passed the desks of two different editors, but was awarded a prize, speaks badly for the current state of the short story in this country.