What kind of person am I? I, my friends, am the type of person who claims to have no room in my dark, cold heart for short stories. Though I often try to make room in my heart for short stories and do tend to like one or two on occasion, I still don't count myself among the short story's fanbase. It also so happens that I am the sort of person who, despite my avowed ambivalence about short stories, is tempted by and requests a whole book of short stories for review. Surprisingly, when I do counter intuitive (read: stupid) things like this, sometimes they come out all right. Deborah Willis's Vanishing and Other Stories did anything but fall flat for me. I'll admit to wanting to spend more time with the characters she created than just the few pages I was allowed, but I was never totally perplexed or unsatisfied, by and the large the feelings I usually associate with short stories.
Deborah Willis's collection is populated by characters who are defined by the absence of an important person in their lives. The title story is that of a daughter whose playwright father disappears one day and leaves her in the shadow of his growing enigmatic fame. Characters are missing parents, friends, or significant others in each story. They're learning to cope, or they're enjoying their freedom, or they're attempting to fill the space left empty in their lives.
The characters Willis portrays are vivid and relateable in their joy, pain, hopes, dreams, fears, and their penetrating need for things that they can't quite put a name to. Willis draws stark clear-eyed pictures of cheating wives, mourning husbands, lost friends, struggling fathers, and confused couples that elicit an unexpected sympathy for those simply struggling to endure the burdens of the human condition. Reading Willis's story collection is like riding the best kind of emotional roller coaster that effortlessly captures the full range of human emotion. Willis also has a clever and fsubtly ironic way with words that makes certain passages jump off the page with their relevance within the context of the stories and perhaps even in our own lives.
Penny looks out at the faces of her students, faces she would describe as looking sleepy or sweetly bored. "By the end of the semester," she says, "you'll have a good grasp of vocabulary and be able to speak in the present and past tenses."
One of the Margarets raises her hand. "What about the future?"
"The future?" Penny is so grateful to this girl for listening that she could kiss her. "We'll try to get to that too. But the future is complicated."
Willis has penned a captivating collection of short stories, many of which, if I didn't enjoy, I at least appreciated. My favorite, though, would have to be "Escape," a story about a meticulous researcher who finds comfort in statistics, reason, and routine who loses his wife to cancer. Searching for something after her death, Tom finds himself taking refuge in gambling at a casino where a has-been magician turned blackjack dealer captivates him with her games and tricks that allow him to escape from the empty routine of his life. The harsh reality of loss juxtaposed with hope and a sense of possibilty make "Escape" an especially poignant read.
But it wasn't until Kelly was admitted to the hospital that he prayed. It took him a while to get the hang of it. He tried to pray to the God of Light that Kelly favoured, but as her condition worsened, that god satisfied him less and less. The god Tom knew was a darker thing. A murky, underwater god. A god who said, Sometimes there is light. A god capable of beauty and cruelty and - Tom prayed for it, every night, on his knees - magic.
(Thanks to Erica at Harper Perennial for the review copy!)