Short story fans, add Little Raw Souls by Steven Schwartz to your reading queue. All eleven stories lower the tractor beam and pull you in. Schwartz writes mostly about ordinary people in semi-harrowing moments. “Characters who populate short stories generally have less grand schemes to plot than private and uncelebrated troubles to manage,” said Schwartz in an interview last year.
That about sums it up though once you begin each story, the stakes are real. Size doesn’t matter.
A 68-year-old divorced man named Charlie extends a helping hand to a “migratory” couple expecting a child in “Bless Everybody.” He lives on 200 acres along the Colorado-Wyoming border. Charlie has a strained relationship with his ex-wife and the story is laced with a low-grade tension between the two of them. Perhaps the drifters are giving Charlie a chance to shine. The drifters drive a Volkswagen bus with bald tires and “its grill had picked up a couple of tumbleweeds and was chewing on them like too much spaghetti in a child’s mouth.” But then the husband of the questionable couple wounds a deer—with a pistol—out of season. The mounting dread is palpable. The story neatly builds layers of ethical questions and basic human desires.
In “Stranger,” Elaine is flying back to Denver after helping her sister deal with her father’s estate in Philadelphia. But her flight is delayed and she’s stuck at the airport. And someone clips her wallet while she naps and she lurches into a world of uncertainty. She is “in a state,” as her husband Richard, back home in Denver, likes to say. She’s also in world of opportunity, given everything, and peers hard around the corner at another self, where “the idea of limits had become just that, an idea.”
“Seeing Miles” is the story of a Denver psychologist named David who is about to get reacquainted with a second cousin, Mimi. He knew Mimi as a teenager and was smitten with her “regal aloofness” and the “long white curve” of her throat. But not Mimi is a he—Miles. And he works hard to see the old Mimi and the new Miles, just as he works hard to figure out the rules about being around—acting normally—around his transgendered relative. “He’d been riveted by Mimi, by her elusive sylph beauty, her slender jaw and sinuous lips that reminded him of graceful Arabic script. He could still see a delicate handsomeness in the man now.” Dredging up the teenage memories, and chatting with the Miles, carries implication for the home life. David is “keen on others’ wounds” and drawn to loneliness—yet he and his Rose (a great choice of names) are trying for another child. The emotions are deftly layered.
In my mind, every single writer on the planet would dig the multi-layered “Galisteo Street” and its themes of rejection and loss. Ben is a writer but hasn’t published anything in a decade. “The gap between success and being forgotten had widened with thoroughbred speed and people had stopped asking about a new book.” He teaches writing now (part-time) and considers it “transitional retirement.” He reads, chops woods, takes yoga, tends tomatoes. Years ago, he’d fathered a child and gave her up for adoption. He didn’t meet the child, Lydia, until she was eleven. The mother of Lydia is Marilyn and she’s the daughter of an unnamed literary star. And here’s where it gets complicated. The last book Ben published was memoir of his time with the troubled Marilyn and it drew lousy reviews. Of course, it outsold his fiction due to its “prurient interest” but what matters is the reaction has caused a serious disruption in his productivity. Now, as the story starts, Ben hears that Lydia, the daughter he abandoned, has had a baby. Ben and his wife Sunny drive to Santa Fe to close circles. Or something. To clean the slate? To look for forgiveness? He needs to get unblocked so he can start writing again. It’s all neatly interwoven, the artist and his actions, the teacher and his lessons—both the ones he preaches and the ones he chooses to ignore.
I’ve recapped a few of stories here, highlighted a few choice lines, but I haven’t touched on the three that wrap up the collection—“Opposite Ends of the World,” “Blockage” and “The Theory of Everything.” They are dynamite. Again, writers will relate to the hunger and frustration of the set-up in “Blockage,” in which our erstwhile novelist has chucked his fiction dreams and is now a dental supply salesman. I’ll leave it at that.
Schwartz knows the heart of a frustrated writer. There is, in fact, no reason that these stories aren’t in regular rotation on the reading lists of those who enjoy Alice Munro or, say, Ron Carlson. (I bought a copy of this book because it won the Colorado Book Award this year, 2014. Well deserved.)
Every story feels fresh—and alive. They are efficient and energetic. The writing is beautiful. The style is understated with a sparkle of poetry here and there—flashes that reveal restraint. Prose takes a backseat to the humanity, the individual and their “uncelebrated troubles.”