- The Washington Times - Friday, July 3, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

SLIPPING THE MOORINGS

By Susan McCallum-Smith

Entasis Press, $19.99, 179 pages

Reviewed by James Srodes

The short story is dead, some say. Except that, recently, there have been signs of life. The resuscitation of the short story as a literary genre got its most visible kiss of life last month when the Canadian superwriter Alice Munro trumped a short list of 70 better-known novelists to win the prestigious Man Booker International Prize for a lifetime’s work at her craft.

Revivals depend on new infusions of talent, and it is worth noting that some newspapers are taking a role once played by popular magazines as a forum for the short story. London’s Sunday Times has begun commissioning short fiction as a feature. And Alexander McCall Smith, who achieved international popularity with his gentle but gripping No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series of crime novels, has for years written a weekly installment short story a la Charles Dickens for Edinburgh’s leading paper, the Scotsman. The series is set in an apartment house at 44 Scotland St., and its title and characters are so compelling that he is amazed to find many of his readers actually think they are real.

Here in Washington, the green shoots of the short story have been nurtured for some time by the creative-writing program Johns Hopkins University runs on its Massachusetts Avenue campus, presided over by the talented poet-publisher Ed Perlman. A first and noteworthy harvest from that cultivation is “Slipping the Moorings,” a collection of tales by area writer Susan McCallum-Smith, an alumna of the program and a tough, funny talent of the first order.

It is helpful to explain just how good Ms. McCallum-Smith’s stories are, a contrast with both Ms. Munro and Mr. McCall Smith. Scottish roots are important to all three. Ms. Munro’s dour rural Scots-Canadian characters from Huron County, Ontario, draw comparisons with William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. Aside from his African detective series, Mr. McCall Smith’s best writing draws on the equally dry but often elegant and always gentle upper middle classes of that Paris of the North, Edinburgh.

Ms. McCallum-Smith, however, started out in Glasgow, as different from Edinburgh as the apartment complexes of Prince George’s County are from the Hunt Country of Fairfax County. Glaswegians are as tough as broken glass and proud of it. The Easterhouse housing developments have been compared to Baghdad on a bad day for the randomness of violence and hopelessness.

Yet in “Hell Mend You,” the most dysfunctional family ever portrayed engages the reader’s sympathy as well as disgust. The final triumph over society’s professional caring bureaucracy has you rooting for the protagonist, even if her interior monologue is laced with bewildering punk argot.

However, the author’s writing goes beyond her birthplace, and other stories bring characters to life. Best of all, the stories bring to life dialogue from a range of voices: contemporary, academic-class American, aristocratic Hispanic circa the 1920s and (in a taut World War II murder story), prime servant-class English. In the collection’s title story, she brings together a chorus: defensive rural Scot, querulous urban Scot and a bewildered Berkeley, Californian. It is a tale for anyone who ever fled home and family ties only to find those ties among the baggage they carried away.

What we have here then is a sampler, akin to what young ladies in previous centuries used to produce: needlepoint creations that displayed the variety of stitches in their repertoire. So there are nods to John Cheever, Jorge Luis Borges, and even Graham Greene’s “Brighton Rock,” but each with a darker palate and a sharper edge to them. I defy anyone to read without laughing out loud “Letting George Down,” a Munro send-up about a man who climbs the television antenna atop Montreal’s old Canadian Pacific Telegraph tower to get better reception for his Canadian hockey game.

The trouble is these comparisons don’t do Ms. McCallum-Smith justice. Behind the dark atmosphere of a few of her plots, wild laughter lurks, waiting to burst out.

Some of her characters are bad people, but we recognize them and understand the difference between those who are really bad and those who, like us, often don’t understand what’s really going on.

While the landscape ranges over different lands and periods, her stories are about very real people who confront familiar problems and reach for imperfect solutions that never quite work out as the reader expects. The solution reached by the woman who wants to get pregnant but whose husband is in jail is worth the price of the book by itself.

I want to compare these stories to both the Westerns and crime novels of Elmore Leonard, probably our best novelist these days, but fear that will jar prospective readers who shrink from those genres without realizing just how great Mr. Leonard is as a creator of memorable characters and astonishing dialogue. Ms. McCallum-Smith is that good.

However, if you buy this book and don’t agree, feel free to contact me, and I will explain where you went wrong.

James Srodes is a Washington journalist and author. His e-mail is [email protected]

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