The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, edited by Ben Marcus; When the Nine Rolls Over and Other Stories by David Benioff
The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories
Edited by Ben Marcus
Anchor. 480 pp. $13.00
When the Nines Roll Over and Other Stories
by David Benioff
Viking. 223 pp. $23.95
There are 29 stories in The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. “In 29 separate but ingenious ways,” writes its editor, Ben Marcus, they “seek permanent residence within a reader.” Whatever that sentence is supposed to mean—separate but ingenious?—the stories selected by Marcus do represent a reasonably comprehensive cross-section of the younger generation of contemporary American writers. Some of these writers—David Foster Wallace, Anne Carson, Jhumpa Lahiri—are already well-known. Others, like Sam Lipsyte, George Saunders, and Padgett Powell, while not exactly famous, can nevertheless be found in the pages of Harper’s or the New Yorker. Even the obscure are hardly starving, having placed stories in collections under established imprints.
In length, the stories collected here range from two to 39 pages. In subject matter, they cover a familiar range of territory: incest, dysfunctional relationships, addiction, violence, poverty, lower-class despair, middle-class despair, upper-middle-class despair. Some, like those by Stephen Dixon, Aimee Bender, and Lydia Davis, follow the Donald Barthelme model: spare, slightly surreal. Others, including the contributions by Deborah Eisenberg, Mary Gaitskill, and Anthony Doerr, adhere to the expansive, quirky American style pioneered by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Saul Bellow.
In the end, this is a placid, unexceptionable book, whose tenor is best captured in a story titled “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned,” by Wells Tower. The action takes place among a group of Vikings. Threatened with impoverishment on account of their ruined crops, the Vikings set off on a coastal raid to kill the wizard whom they hold responsible. When he turns out not to be the wizard they are looking for, their leader murders him anyway, provoking uneasiness among the men both about their safety and about the worthiness of their goals. Now they set their sights on a neighboring town; in the course of an abortive raid, one of them, the affection-starved Gnut, meets the daughter of a local. She is missing an arm from a previous Viking attack. Perhaps out of a dawning sense of responsibility, Gnut falls in love with her and brings her back to his hut. They live, to coin a phrase, happily ever after.
Tower writes about the Viking marauders as if they were modern Americans in their early thirties finally facing the fact of their long-delayed adulthood and trying to come to terms with it. The voice of the narrator, himself one of the raiders, is full of anachronisms, as is the speech of his comrades. Here is the story’s first sentence: “Just as we were all getting back into the mainland domestic groove, somebody started in with dragons and crop blight from across the North Sea.”
It is hard to pinpoint what is so thoroughly deficient in this story. Tower, a wholly professional writer, seems to take his characters’ fears and hopes seriously, perhaps intending to suggest that niggling but deep insecurities about job and home are not specific to our own time. But he succeeds only in making the Vikings themselves seem incapacitated and risible. Inevitably, one is left wondering what might have been done with the same material by a writer of greater gifts.
And that is the impression one takes from the book as a whole. In nearly all of the stories, Vikings, in one form or another, appear again and again: a pageant of characters engaged in wildly varied activities, from secretly tending a garden on a large estate (Anthony Doerr’s “The Caretaker”) to wandering pointlessly through some vaguely Beckettian terrain (Stephen Dixon’s “Down the Road”), but all possessing the sensibilities, and the voice, of middle-class, college-educated Americans, or more precisely of those who write stories about them. Could this crushing similarity be the reason behind Ben Marcus’s no doubt inadvertent suggestion that a story’s individuality is somehow at odds with its ingenuity?
A writer not included by Marcus is David Benioff, the author of a novel, The 25th Hour (2001), on which a movie was based, and also of the screenplay for the movie Troy . His new collection of stories, When the Nines Roll Over, demonstrates a devotion to craft, a considerable fund of talent, and a lightness and playfulness wholly absent from The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. Even better, and again in contrast to so many of his contemporaries, Benioff is deeply interested in life outside his own sphere and his own thoughts and sensibilities, and he knows how to transcribe compellingly what he sees and imagines.
There are two first-rate stories in When the Nines Roll Over. One of them, “The Devil Comes To Orekhovo,” recounts the adventures of Leksi, a green recruit in the Russian army, and two of his fellow soldiers as they ferret out rebels in Chechnya. (Already we are far away from the world of Marcus’s collection.) In an apparently abandoned mansion, they discover the owner, an old woman, hiding in a room beneath the basement floor. The two older soldiers assign to Leksi the job of taking her out to the woods and shooting her. On the way, she tells him a folktale, whose title is “When The Devil Came to Orekhovo” and in which the devil is at last defeated. In the end, Leksi finds that he cannot manage the job of killing the old woman; she escapes, but only to be tracked down and shot by Surkhov, his superior officer.
“The Devil Comes to Orekhovo” is a grim story, a story about very real deviltry; but Benioff manages to make it a buoyant one. In part he does this through his eye for the telling detail, as when the soldiers discover an antique doll in the house and put Leksi through the humiliating ceremony of having to kiss it. But “The Devil Comes to Orekhovo” succeeds by means of more than its taste for the picturesque. Listening to the old woman’s story, Leksi finds himself wondering urgently what will happen if he lets her go, perhaps to alert the Chechens and provoke a deadly counterattack. (He manages to convince himself this will not happen.) In another interjection of moral speculation into an unbearably tense situation, the terrified Leksi ponders whether the vanquished devil in the woman’s story might not really be such a bad creature after all: “He wanted to marry the world’s most beautiful woman. What was wrong with that?” In its own marriage of crystallized sensual detail, humor, and hovering menace, this story inevitably calls to mind the compressed mastery of Isaac Babel in his Red Cavalry tales.
“Zoanthropy,” the third story in the collection, concerns a confrontation of another sort: between a young man, Mackenzie Bonner, and a lion who makes an unexplained appearance on the streets of Manhattan. The lion first enters Bonner’s life in the courtyard of the Frick Museum; so does Louis Butchko, a museum guard who has been appointed as “The Lover of the East Coast” by some mysterious higher authority and is responsible for satisfying the desires of unfulfilled women “from the northern tip of Maine to Georgia.” Eventually, Bonner’s father, a renowned big-game hunter, is called in to dispatch the animal, which he does on the steps of the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. That night, looking out his window, Bonner observes Butchko in flagrante delicto.
“Zoanthropy” radiates a palpable sense of unnerving delight, recalling J.D. Salinger’s “Just Before the War With the Eskimos” or “The Laughing Man.” Making use of many of the conventions of contemporary short fiction—the plot is somewhat fantastic; the narrator is an unemployed and insecure young man; the story’s “meaning” hinges on the idea that human relationships are impenetrably mysterious—it is also a simple celebration of its own improbable situation and of the characters who inhabit it. Benioff steadfastly refuses to reduce Bonner to a thinly veiled version of himself; even the young man’s most intimate thoughts are wholly his own, unburdened by writerly elaboration or metaphor. After telling his father about his encounter with the lion, Bonner watches a telltale smile dawn on the older man’s face:
It was the Smile for Mackenzie, the expression he reserved for me alone. This is what you need to know about my father: he was a man who made his living killing animals, though he adored animals and disdained men. But I was his love’s son, and that gave me immunity from disdain. . . . [H]is turn in the world was far from gentle, but he was gentle with me.
Even in the lesser stories in this collection, Benioff succeeds in creating characters who speak like themselves. “The Barefoot Girl in Clover,” “Merde for Luck,” and the title story—all three are about love irredeemably lost—are blessedly free of the abstract and faintly academic discourse that is the bane of the Anchor anthology. Compare Sadjoe, the forlorn musician of “When the Nines Roll Over,” who manages to maintain his intuitive wit even in the face of the talent agent who has stolen his girl—“Jesus, Tabachnik. Don’t you have any imagination, man? Don’t you have any fucking imagination? You think you turn the corner and I just disappear?”—with the reflections of the narrator of A.M. Homes’s “Do Not Disturb” on his disintegrating relationship with his wife: “The situation has become oxygenless and addicting, a suffocating annihilation.” In the latter, it is the reader who does most of the suffocating.
In his introduction to the Anchor anthology, Ben Marcus makes another puzzling statement: with these stories, he writes, “you could build a civilization.” If so, it would be a singularly uninspiring one. David Benioff enters no such claims of grandeur for his work, which, whether or not it contains the seeds of a civilization, does contain more than one vibrant and recognizable human being. Grounds enough, in my opinion, to be thankful.