Reviewed by Linda McCullough Moore

What's the Story? Is This It?

The best American questions.

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But in the main, these characters are well-meaning in the extreme. They care. They want to get it right. In "Beyond the Pale," by Joseph Epstein, a young Jewish writer honors his grandfather by spending years translating Yiddish into English, preserving what is good and worthy to be read and to endure, at great cost to himself. In Adam Johnson's "Hurricanes Anonymous," a man called Nonc, a father who was never fathered, tries to father—this man in the middle, not young, not old—standing with arms stretched out in two directions to his father, to his son, not reaching, not connecting, oh, but surely wanting to. Driving off finally in the end, he thinks, ".the city looks like one of those end-time Bible paintings where everything looks large and impressive, … but some major shit is befalling people."

And no one tries harder, or at greater risk, than the Civil War sailors in Ethan Rutherford's story "The Peripatetic Coffin," a nickname for the first underwater vessel, the Confederate H.L. Hunley, a sorry sort of submarine that fails at every mission. As the vessel sinks for the final time, one sailor wonders, do we only, "prove our own uselessness?" "No," comes the reply. "We are an expression of an intangible truth that has plagued victors for thousands of years. That immolation as a form of confrontation holds irreducible powers." Then the retort: "If we wanted approval, we would have kept diaries."

Too often in these stories, though, however well-meaning, the characters are hapless, rudderless and passive. In Yiyun Li's "A Man Like Him," Teacher Fei misses his father, who scribbled out the words, "I have nothing to say about the world," and then took his own life. Truly his father's son, Teacher Fei hires a caretaker every afternoon for his aged mother so that he may visit sex chat rooms, his practice fostered not so much by lust as lassitude. He is unresisting when accused of anything, as is a friend who is willing to be falsely accused of adultery or to be fed rat poison by an angry daughter. Hopelessness and passivity duke it out, or co-exist.

Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum's brilliant story "Yurt" ends with a lonely teacher's recalling one single event that actually mattered, the day another teacher unexpectedly embraced her, a "moment in which someone had made a decision." This is set in stark relief against a lifetime of no one's doing, no one's deciding, anything.

Decisiveness is seldom the watchword. In Daniel Alarcon's "The Idiot President," an actor watches as days, months, and finally years pass, the three time-measures hardly differing in length or meaning. These people watch the show that is their lives, apparently not thinking one might be a player, a participant, in one's own life.

We are alone, these stories say, but Facebook tells us that. Truth here is starker still. We live, then die alone, is a refrain that echoes through drear, empty spaces. In Richard Powers' "Modulation," an aging professor slips on the ice on a dark, deserted campus. He blacks out, comes to, and as the snow begins to cover him, there he lies, "listening to a need as big as lust or hunger, an urge with no reason on earth ever to have evolved." We are meant to take comfort that before morning he will be part of the great nothingness, the final silence. This for a man whose life has been music. Need that has no reason. Unless …. Unless … but that's a different Composer. This man's story ends in silence.

Annie Proulx's "Them Old Cowboy Songs" is a harrowing tale set in the 1880s, when Archie and Rose McLaverty marry young, work hard, die soon, each alone. Yet another death by freezing. A friend reckons, "some lived and some died." So much for life's meaning anchored in our living on in memory. These stories don't pretend.

In Steve de Jarnatt's wonderful story "Rubiaux Rising," Rubiaux has lost parts of an arm and leg in the war and has a temporary metal plate attached to his skull. We come upon him in his Aunt Leoma's home-style detox center, nailed up in her attic on the eve of a Category 5 hurricane. And so have we all been in wars with enemies and oxycodone, nailed up in some well-meaning person's attic, waiting to be rescued with nothing but the metal plate that holds the skull in place to use to start a fire in a tarpaper roof, to make an escape hatch, and to signal we're alive and wanting to be rescued by the helicopter overhead.

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