Tracy Dahlby teaches journalism at UT Austin and is the author of Into the Field: A Foreign Correspondent's Notebook and Allah's Torch: A Report from Behind the Scenes in Asia's War on Terror.
Thomas McGuane, Crow Fair: Stories
Foreign correspondents of a certain age notoriously teethed on the works of Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Conrad, and so discovering other masters of the short story has, for me, been both a career-long joy and a sort of busman's holiday from deadlines. One big regret is that I didn't start reading Thomas McGuane until I dipped into his new collection of Montana-centric stories some weeks ago. I can't remember reading an author more adept at limning man's (as in men's) unerring capacity for outsmarting himself in shrewd ploys that backfire with such abrupt, joke's-on-you twists—turnabouts that reveal the pathos that's been percolating under the surfaces of mordant humor all along. "What kind of idiot puts a casserole in a lunch pail?" asks the sclerotic husband of "The Casserole," after he learns his wife of twenty-five years is leaving him to stay on at her parents' ranch and his mother-in-law hands him a heavy meal for the long drive home.
Ron Rash, Something Rich and Strange: Selected Stories
Then there are the fine, laconic stories of Ron Rash. This latest volume is a sort of greatest-hits compilation, and typically the stories sparkle with clean, elegant sentences that cast light on the dark edges of life in Rash's Appalachia. Very impressive is the author's gift for time travel—in one story he'll be writing about the wages of the Civil War; in another, about characters today caught up in rural America's crystal meth epidemic. In a favorite, "Hard Times," about life on a hardscrabble, Depression-era farm, the luckless farmer shows mercy to a thief but doesn't dare tell his sullen wife as he climbs into bed next to her. "Jacob closed his eyes but did not sleep. Instead, he imagined towns where hungry men hung on boxcars looking for work that couldn't be found, shacks where families lived who didn't even have one swaybacked milk cow. . . . He tried to imagine a place worse than where he was."
Edna O'Brien, The Love Object: Selected Stories
What talk of short stories would be complete without the touch of an Irish master? And, as luck would have it, Edna O'Brien has come out with new collection, too. I'm enjoying it very much. In "A Scandalous Woman," O'Brien skewers the pecking order and baked-in attitudes toward women in "a land," she writes, "of strange sacrificial women." Her sentences bristle, stylishly, with a sense of outrage at the sin of injustice and the injustice of (the allocation of) sin, in a lush, descriptive tongue. There's the posture of a vulpine swain waiting for his lover, "his face forward, his head almost as low as the handlebars of the bicycle, and he surveyed us carefully as we approached." And the young bride who, after her shotgun wedding, looks to make her escape: "When they came to leave Eily tried to dart into the back of the car . . . just like an animal trying to get back to its lair." In short, it's poignant, beautiful stuff that unwinds at a stately pace.