boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe
BOOK REVIEW

Quick reads, deep thoughts, lasting enjoyment

New Sudden Fiction: Short-Short Stories From America and Beyond, Edited by Robert Shapard and, James Thomas, Norton, 320 pp., $15.95

One is tempted to think of these short -- very short -- stories as the literary equivalent of an amuse-bouche : tantalizing morsels designed to tease, excite, and hint of more extravagant delights to come. Still, while many of the stories in this eclectic collection excel in tickling the intellectual palate, each is self-contained, a beginning, middle, and end captured in less than 2,000 words.

Yet make no mistake -- the brevity of these 60 stories makes them no less vibrant or satisfying. "New Sudden Fiction" is Robert Shapard and James Thomas's fourth anthology of short-short stories, featuring works from an international cast of writers including Tobias Wolff, Ha Jin, Nadine Gordimer, and Jorge Luis Arzola .

Both teachers of literature and creative writing , Shapard and Thomas kicked around various names -- "experimental fictions," "prose poems," even "enigmas" -- to describe these tiny tales. It was easier, they found, to define how these stories, culled from literary magazines and books, stood apart from standard short stories.

"One thing they were definitely not," they write in an editors' note, "were little formula stories with an ironic twist at the end, the sort of O. Henry brand manufactured for popular magazines generations ago." Not only does this seem like an odd dig at William Sydney Porter , the late-19th-century writer whose pen name has become synonymous with the short story, it's also not entirely true. Many of these stories are too dynamic to sidestep the delicious possibilities of an unforeseen twist about the melancholia, capriciousness, or joy of life.

A fine example is Ursula Hegi 's "Stolen Chocolates," in which a woman sees her first love, Eddie, in a restaurant, and discovers he is now morbidly obese. His hair remains blond and curly as it was when the narrator, Vera, was a lovesick teenager long before Eddie "tripled in size." At first, Vera is embarrassed when he approaches her, horrified when he invites her to meet his wife. What could have been an extended fat joke -- the restaurant is an all-you-can-eat-style buffet -- instead becomes a subtle rumination about the tender resilience of a young love.

In Peter Orner 's "The Raft," an old man recalls a long-ago judgment he made regarding the fate of naked, starving Japanese sailors during World War II. Trying to justify his actions, he tells his grandson, "My job was to make decisions," and his words resonate as the infernal lament of every haunted soldier from Andersonville to Abu Ghraib.

Not every story works as well. Touré's "I Shot the Sheriff," based on the classic Bob Marley song of the same name, tries to flesh out the tune's narrative about a fatal encounter between a fed-up sugarcane farmer and a bullying lawman. Touré sprinkles his prose with Marley's lyrics but never really moves the story in his own intriguing directions. Much better is Sherrie Flick 's sly "How I Left Ned," about how haggling over the purchase of ears of corn leads to a personal epiphany.

Some might harbor the notion that these abbreviated stories are the natural byproduct of a society with an ever-diminishing attention span. Instead, this "sudden fiction" is as piquant as a private joke, as laden with unspoken meaning as a sigh. Time and again, these writers prove good things can come in small packages, and that size doesn't always matter.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES