As his total number of published short stories exceeds 300, it seems unnecessary to dwell upon Leon Rooke’s much-celebrated productivity. What demands consideration, however, is whether such torrential output can exist without a corresponding dilution of excellence. Is his massive literary corpus an achievement in itself, or is it merely indicative of an embarrassing incontinence?
To be sure, Rooke displays virtuoso range throughout the 11 stories and one novella that make up The Last Shot. It seems there’s hardly a register, a dialect, a mood, a setting, a protagonist, or a conceit that he won’t try on at least once. In the literary homage “J.D.,” our narrator – speaking a teenage skaz that’s as inventively colloquial as Holden Caulfield’s – describes accosting Salinger at the town dump, where the recluse is regularly seen depositing his never-to-be-published work. In the ultra-Gothic “The Yellow House,” an entire family, ailing, blighted, and shut away from life outside, awaits a bizarre salvation. In the tragicomic title story, a blind and elderly ex-rodeo rider is subjected to the madcap depredations of his impudent and capricious grandchildren.
A supernatural bank heist, a town-devouring moth infestation, racist rednecks whose complexions turn black, and more: the collection is marked by an unstinting eclecticism, and an almost doctrinaire whimsicality. John Metcalf, who has edited Rooke in the past, has written approvingly that a Rooke story is something to be “experienced” rather than “understood.” But such an approach can, as it occasionally does here, tempt the writer to take refuge in obscurity, or to neglect the internal consistency of a story in order to play with a special effect.
His final tale, “Son of Light,” avoids such shortcomings. In it, a lonely desert godling haunts the oases where nomads come to camp. He observes their ceaseless travels; he marvels at their indefatigability in the face of thirst and hunger; he puzzles over their arbitrary rituals. In what amounts to a perfect distillation of human life, he suffers, he learns, and then he too travels to the place from whence he came. “Son of Light” proves that from even the most prolific of authors, sometimes just one story is enough.