Saturday, January 17, 2009
I have two brief reviews in this weekend's Chicago Tribune. I share one with you here, for Louise Erdrich's The Red Convertible, a collection of short stories that I wholeheartedly embrace. The second review spotlights Marie Arana's Lima Nights, a novel about forbidden love and its consequences.
It was Louise Erdrich's fault that I fell back in love with fiction. I speak of years ago and the opening pages of "The Beet Queen." I speak of "Love Medicine" and "Tracks." I could not get enough of the odd modifiers, the unglossed people, the immaculate tattling on about butchers and knives peddlers, weigh-shack employees and sink holes, Jell-O salads prettied up with sliced radishes, 24 fried fantail shrimp on a bed of coleslaw. It was all so quirky, also authentic. It was so tumbled down and awkwardly fine, and it didn't matter who was talking—male or female, child or adult, love bruised or love infatuated. Erdrich got it right. Laughing, I read her. Amazed, I couldn't set her down.
"The Red Convertible: Selected and New Stories" is Erdrich's compendium of greatest hits—30 familiar stories (many of which formed the backbones of her multi-narrator novels) and six not previously published ones. The short story, Erdrich tells us in her too-brief preface, is where her novels often begin, where ideas "gather force and weight and complexity." So Mary and Karl, the abandoned children of "The Blue Velvet Box," could not be left alone once they stowed away on a freight train in the spring of 1932. Karl would go west, and Mary east. Mary would stay right where she landed, in that place called Argus, in that life of sausage stuffing and butchering. Karl would return, years later, "fine boned, slick, agreeable, and dressed to kill in his sharp black suit, winy vest, knotted brown tie." They'd keep showing up in short stories—changed, familiar, irresistible—until a novel had been webbed together of the most immaculate parts.
Erdrich's stories don't grow old. They grow more astonishing for how fresh they still feel, packaged this way, wide, wrinkly, back-to-back. You only have to read the first story, which is also the title story, to get a whiff of authorial wizardry—to understand that Erdrich is, in the space of 10 pages, going to give you not just a whole family and the way they talk, but the way they hurt and the way they almost heal one another. She's going to give you one line, "My boots are filling," that is going to go and break your heart. She warns you. You follow. You fall.
Erdrich's stories always sound like Erdrich, but they don't go and get stuck in some rut. Take, for example, "The Painted Drum," originally published in The New Yorker in 2003, about an estate appraiser who helps the widowed, the orphaned, and the just plain baffled sort and assess the stuff of the deceased. The story takes place in New Hampshire in spring—a season "virginal and loudly sexual all at once." It starts out feeling sober but quickly changes mood as the narrator, trusted to help appraise a particular estate, is tempted into an act of thievery, which may also be the same as survival.
Erdrich holds nothing back in "The Painted Drum;" as a writer, she never does. It's as if she's perpetually writing her first story and her last.