singlecarefree I had this grand idea of reviewing a handful of short story collections, and then ran across Laura Van Den Berg’s story “Antarctica”, which ends The Best American Short Stories of 2014. Her writing brought everything to a stop, and I turned all my attention to her work. In early 2015 FSG will publish her first novel, Find Me, an advanced readers copy just arrived in the mail.

First a few stories that I had laying around:

Single, Carefree, Mellow: stories by Kate Heiny – Knopf February 2015. This grabbed my attention at the New England Independent Booksellers Association annual meeting last month. I suspect there is a novel in the wings, but the lead story “Dive Bar” was a little slim with revealing rich details. It does let you coast along on the coattails of two women, or three, if you count the wronged Ex. Sasha stole Carson from Anne, and is planning on meeting her for drinks to clear the air, make sure that if you didn’t know Anne was the upset Ex, now you do. Sasha and has a pal named Monique, they are conspiring over cocktails about life in NYC, upper east side and upper west, and are bothered by anything above a chipped manicure. Sasha will sadden you, but Monique is a throwaway, it is really what Anne says to Sasha that will rock your world when she informs Sasha that the man you have stolen is nothing more than “cunt struck” by her, then you will know how deeply upset the wronged Anne is. This story drops right off the edge of the book at this moment, it comes late, but it is so glorious that Sasha has to vacate the premise post haste.

Flings: stories by Justin Taylor – Harper Collins, on sale now. I have become a fan of Mr. Taylor’s ever since I read Everything Here Is The Best Thing Ever, and for some reason stumbled across his story “After Ellen” (which Flings contains), you can read my review here: seems to me that he’s producing fiction at a fairly steady rate, and Harper Collins shows their appreciation by keeping him in print.

bestamshortstories“Antarctica” by Laura Van Den Berg, from The Best American Short Stories 2014, edited by Jennifer Egan. “Antarctica” quickly becomes a story that could not be put down. It was the lost brother aspect that appealed to me. He might have disappeared and manufactured the explosion that took his life at the start of this story. His sister narrates and recounts how close she is to her brother, and how he met his wife Eve. They got together while he attended MIT in Cambridge, MA, and she was a theater arts major, and she seemed more interested in acting than being a wife. Eve also confides to our narrator that she was abducted and held captive when she was younger. I think what propels this story is the remoteness of Antarctica and the homegrown creepiness of Eve. She stalks around, and our narrator rarely knows how to deal with her. When we find out that the brother was a difficult person to deal with too, didn’t play well with others, she starts to wonder if her brother was good at anything. The narrator toggles between the post death investigation of her brother, and Eve, who might have been lying to her all along. The pages of this story whip by, and we learn the brother wasn’t really a scientist, and it was possible that being a student at MIT just allowed him access to a larger world where jobs as researcher were attainable with the right pedigree, regardless of bandwidth. Eve is hard to get ahold of, and then disappears suddenly. We’re left with a voice that is both oddly haunting, and strangely focused on putting spilled milk back in the bottle. The narrator is lost. Her brother is dead, and Eve was just a spiral of smoke. (The story “Antarctica” appears near the middle of her second collection Isle of Youth, but it seems important to point out that Jennifer Egan deemed this one of the best short stories of 2014. If you don’t want to commit to one collection or another, then buy The Best American Short Stories of 2014)

isleofyouthIsle of Youth: stories by Laura Van Den Berg, FSG, $14, tradepaper original. In the first two stories we find ourselves wrapped inside a honeymoon and then alongside sisters who fancy themselves private detectives. The lead story, “I Looked For You, I Called Your Name” is a pure shot of adrenaline, almost too seat-of-your-pants to be believed. We rush headlong into an airplane in distress, watch a newly married couple avoid death and survive to arrive in Patagonia. But not before our narrator has her nose broken by her husband. The landing was rough; he threw an elbow, “accidentally”. That incident hangs on the story, and offers a little comic relief to everyone they meet on this journey. It would be assumed he broke her nose through an act of violence. He protests, as he should. The wind churns through the reader’s hair, you’re at edge of the world as she tells us of an early childhood trauma, which is not unlike anything you have not heard before, but it haunts you just the same. The couple travel ahead in time and go backwards in their relationship. She sees another woman swimming in the ocean, and for a moment it feels like we have been transported to this beach, and when a fire breaks out in the hotel on another night, we’re standing with her again and the women from the ocean has reappeared. Van Den Berg puts us up close to the action, snuggles you in, and it is hard to find room to breath, but that might be the point.

“Opa-Locka” is about the sisters who fancy themselves detectives, they really do the pretend thing well. Their mother is on permanent vacation, while they sit on the roof spying. One of these two has done some time in jail, while the other does time in life. I felt the grind of nothing-ness wafting off these pages as these two look down on a hotel for a husband that is less than faithful. I was shocked when one of the sisters meets a gruesome end, and was left rather miffed by the idea that they would no longer be spies. The sister who goes unscathed just returned to life already in progress.

In “Lessons”, which probably could have been a stand-alone novel, we meet Dana, Jackie, Pinky, and Cora. Pinky is also Dana’s little brother. They call themselves The Gorillas, and they are bank robbers. They have graduated from Quick Marts and Liquor Stores to banks. They’re moving though the midwest. Their problem is a rival gang of girl bank robbers who are getting the limelight. You immediately fall in love with their plight, kids from a farm gone bust. Dad stopped paying taxes and then everything went away. Van Den Berg takes us through the planning stages of the robbery, and also the day-to-day life of the gang while cooling their heels in a hotel. Again you’re taken inside the action, just underneath the warm coat of this “family”. It is hard to pinpoint where the story completely takes you over, it might be the end where they rob the bank, or the moment when one of them builds a toy robot and another one accidentally breaks it. You can’t slow this story down; the voice is slick, the details pure. Cora passing a note to Dana that gives away the next move, or when they think that plastic surgery is a good way to hide their identities. After two fairly straightforward stories this little gem is both perky and easy to love. They die, I suspect, or go to jail, but we are left with the image of them cruising through the heartland.

At this point I feel as though I have made significant discovery, but a little late. The fine folks at FSG sent me this collection a year ago and I set it aside for no apparent reason. After reading the final two stories I believe this is a writer of considerable importance, and these stories to be truly amazing. In the last story, The Isle of Youth twin sisters in a hurricane ravaged Florida switch places, and let the mind-bending realities unfold. Sylvia is a snake to be sure, but she’s a twin, and that levels the playing field in her less than above board life. This story has a breathless quality to it, and the pages turn and turn as we hope to find out exactly which twin will appear unscathed. The story right before this, “The Great Escape”, is about a mother and daughter who are traveling magicians. They will knock your socks off. Van Den Berg rapidly delivers youngish women, perhaps mid-twenties, who are at a physical or emotional crossroads. They are often times trying to get out of bad marriages, or just pull a rabbit out of a hat. We always discover their worries at the exact moment they do, which makes each character more important than the last.