Toward the end of her fine new collection of deceptively expansive short stories, Kathy Page unfurls a little number called “Daddy,” told from the point of view of a child spelunking with his (her?) father in a tiny cave, an afternoon adventure gently elevated into a rite of passage. In plain, unspectacular language, Page weaves a credibly pre-adolescent inner monologue around symbols ranging from a dragonfly slipping its skin to a flashlight switched on in the dark. As a beacon of parental responsibility, the latter’s glow evokes nothing less than the climax of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, minus the epic sweep: “Daddy” barely runs a page and a half. But that compactness is the very source of its power.
Page isn’t interested in plot so much as decisive, life-changing moments that come sooner than the reader – or the characters – expect. In “The Right Thing to Say,” a couple sweating the results of an important medical test are introduced in the midst of unimaginable stress, yet no sooner has the author built up a complex ethical and emotional context for the action than she’s exploded it: Page rarely lets us get too comfortable. She’s also wickedly funny. The heroine of “Different Lips” is disappointed when she discovers that her ex-boyfriend’s one outstanding physical feature – his mouth, a “navel in the face” – has been swollen by allergies into a monstrous parody of its former, perfectly puckered incarnation. Page works this premise into a nifty metaphor for the trickiness of reigniting old passions.
As its title suggests, The Two of Us is arranged as a series of dual character studies, and while Page is resourceful in how she devises her pairings (and also in how she shifts and manipulates point of view), it’s tough to tell whether the similarities between the stories – the yearning lovers and anxious parents; the buzzing gardens and notable animals – are signs of thematic unity or a writer intentionally repeating herself. But her ability to find little frissons of shock or recognition in situations just this side of mundane marks her as a significant miniaturist all the same.
There’s a more swashbuckling style and vocabulary at play in Leon Rooke’s Swinging Through Dixie, an unusually structured anthology that sandwiches three briefer pieces between a pair of novellas. Rooke is a raucous writer who loses himself gladly in run-on descriptions and revels in desirous or agitated exchanges between eccentric characters. The longest narrative – the novella that gives the collection its title – describes a southern American town circa 1947, whose inhabitants are thrown into a kind of hysteria by the arrival of a ribald new film supposedly starring one of its most pulchritudinous citizens – a set-up suggesting the seduction and terror of seeing one’s life projected as big as all outdoors.
There are echoes here of Peter Bogdanovich’s black-and-white 1971 drama The Last Picture Show, except that Rooke isn’t really all that interested in the movie theatre as a site for drama: instead, he turns the town itself into a kind of bawdy ensemble comedy, populated by hot-and-bothered types orbiting around the ancient newspaper-man Hubbard, whose wryly journalistic perspective might be a stand-in for the author’s own.
A similar figure appears in “The Historian,” in which an aged writer waits out his time in a modern-day hospital ward beset by a trio of strenuously obscene patients (“obese cherubs”) who might be distorted versions of his own daughter. Here, Rooke’s deployment of overstuffed, outsized verbiage verges on the legitimately surreal, replacing the elegiac tone of “Swinging Through Dixie” with something altogether more contemporary and troubling.
In the second novella, “Trading with Mexico,” Rooke combines both approaches: the tale of a Mexican village whose eligible bachelors risk life and limb for a shot at a beautiful, cloistered señorita filters a finely grained sense of a country’s social, political, and mythic history through a magical-realist prism reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez. (The Colombian master’s spirit also hovers closely over the closing sentences of “Swinging Through Dixie.”)
What’s finally satisfying about Rooke’s work surely does not lie in its sense of resolution: the meaning of the final parable is deftly left nebulous after a magnificently portentous build-up. Rather, it’s all about the momentum created from word to word and image to image – a hard-charging forward movement that can leave you in the dust if you’re not careful.