I’ve been reading Richard Russo’s short story collection The Whore’s Child as a follow-up to the introduction he wrote for BASS 2010. The collection was published in 2002 after his Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, Empire Falls.
The title story, “The Whore’s Child,” originally published in Harper’s, was a wonderful read, and had the same mesmerizing, irresistible quality as the description of the Singer lecture. A 90-year-old nun shows up in a college Advanced Fiction workshop taught by the narrator (which no doubt added to my enjoyment as the setting was so familiar), and proceeds to write a memoir of her childhood at the mercy of nuns who never let her forget she was, indeed, a whore’s child. The other students offer critiques that are both heartbreaking and hilarious, given the circumstances, until one of them totally changes the nun’s perception of a crucial part of her past. These critiques – how to make the story work as fiction, when it was not fiction at all – were wonderful; I’ve read so many essays on how real life doesn’t necessarily make good fiction and how it must often be adjusted to add drama and suspense, and here was that advice in action. I even copied one comment, a flaw that feels very familiar to me, to use in my own writing:
“It’s a victim story,” one student recognized. “The character is being acted on by outside forces, but she has no choices, which means there can be no consequences to anything she does. If she doesn’t participate in her own destiny, where’s the story?”
This has immense meaning in the context of the story, as the nun is, remember, writing a nonfiction account of her life, and she considers this idea, of choices, very carefully.
I was enthralled by the memoir-within-a-story, giddy with recognition of the behavior of the teacher and other students, as well as impatient with same, and then devastated by the final classroom session and closing scene. Part of my enjoyment was of course from having been in similar situations, having seen “outsiders” dealing with technical criticism – having been an outsider dealing with such criticism, let’s be honest, just a little – that is far more personal than the critiquer realizes. The helplessness of the teacher to deal with the student – an illegitimate student, unregistered, not supposed to be there at all – echoes her situation as a child, and in some ways heals it, as she was allowed to stay. I got a bit impatient with the manipulation of the teacher’s family circumstances to make it somehow parallel the nun’s, though in a very different way; it felt a little forced to me, but not painfully so. I loved that the college, the nun’s house (nunnery?), and her church were all located near “Forest Avenue” when Russo is from Maine and there is in Portland a Forest Avenue bearing a college and of course many churches. But the nun was the star of this show, it was her story, and whatever impression the other stories make, this one is worth the book.
The next story, “Monhegan Light,” originally in Esquire was less successful for me. It featured a Hollywood film maker (once a gaffer, now a Director of Photography, but famous for his talent at hiding flaws through lighting) visiting his dead wife’s former lover, a semi-famous artist, on an island off the Maine coast after having received a painting of his wife. I found the opening very confusing – his wife, her sister, and his current girlfriend, plus the artist/lover, just got jumbled and I found it impossible to get grounded and know who was who, what the relationships were, and what was going on. About halfway through the story I did get up to speed, but I never really got with the program, never cared about anyone, and found only slight enjoyment in the story.
Third, we have “The Farther You Go” (from Shenandoahwhich I had to skim over again to remember. Oh, right, Dad runs hubby out of town after he hits Daughter while Son watches. This didn’t work for me at all, and I struggled to read through it. I just wasn’t interested by anything. But I might try again. I think the title is more important than I realized on first read.
Then we get to “Joy Ride”, originally published in Meridian. I wasn’t feeling very hopeful, but I was soon entranced, and it turned out to be almost as enjoyable as the first story. Set in the early 60’s, told from the POV of a twelve-year-old boy who is on the brink of becoming a delinquent (back when they still called them that), it’s the study of a wife who leaves her husband and drives across country to escape, not abuse or anything serious, but quiet desperation following a nebulous relationship with a man who showed her more was possible. The boy’s perceptions are wonderful: he isn’t sure he wants to run away from home but doesn’t seem to have much choice; he doubts his courage and isn’t sure Mom is doing the right thing (she seems to have mood swings, whether she’s supposed to be downright pathological or not I can’t tell). It’s a sharp family portrait and I felt scornful and sympathetic to all of them at different points. The resolution seemed a little rushed, but it worked well enough. There’s an incident in a restaurant that I thought was going in a different direction, and I’m still not sure what to make of it, other than it ended up as more of a model of courage for the boy than what I thought it would be, a pair of con-men teaming up. The end includes what might be seen as a bit of revisionism, but maybe not, depending on how you read it. There are some wonderful images throughout, especially those involving multitudes of tiny glass cuts from a broken windshield, which reminded me of one of my favorite quotes: “Any idiot can face a crisis, it’s this day-to-day living that wears you out” (Chekhov).
There are three more stories which I’ll cover later. So far, 50/50, which isn’t bad, especially since both of the hits were solid hits.