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Kevin Stark

Beyond Life’s Slow Drizzle: ‘Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty’ by Diane Williams

There are 51 stories in Diane Williams’s new book of short stories, Vicky Swanky is a Beauty (McSweeney’s Books, 118 pages), and not one of them is longer than a page, front and back. I read the collection in a night, and spent a week and a half (with pleasure) working the text over again. Is this flash fiction? It is, except when there isn’t really a narrative. Then the pieces are prose poems. Williams uses a lot of devices consistent with prose poems – the second-person voice, the posing of questions. But whether her book can be classified as one thing or another ultimately doesn’t matter (beyond figuring out if it belongs in the “to read” or “to read, again” pile).

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The Wear and Tear of a Boy’s Life: Roy Jacobsen’s ‘Child Wonder’

Roy Jacobsen’s coming-of-age novel, Child Wonder (Graywolf Press; 239 pages), offers a well-crafted metaphor for the cultural transformations of Norway in the 1960s – a time “[b]efore oil,” as Jacobsen writes in the foreword, “before anyone had any money at all.” The book, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw, is also a romance of youth, filled with nostalgia and secrets, rage and violence. And, of course, transformations. Suddenly, for Finn, the story’s narrator and hero, things become “brighter,” eyes become “bluer.”

Though he is an emotionally rich, thoughtful and observant character, Finn still acts out like a mouthy, rambunctious nine-year old. He is cynical like Holden Caulfield, isolated like Oskar Schell, and as wildly impulsive as Huck Finn but with the internal reserve of Tom Sawyer. And he contains violence. To Jacobsen’s credit, the trait that shines brightest about Finn is his joyfulness. It is a pleasure to read about him swimming distances “immeasurable in metres or happiness,” or his climbing, fighting, and stealing views of a nude sunbather. This all takes place during “the most everlasting of all summers,” when Finn, on the outset, realizes “I was no child any more and yet I was, and I wanted to be neither, but someone else, again.”

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Blue-Collar Living: Katherine Karlin’s Story Collection, ‘Send Me Work’

The heroines of Katherine Karlin’s first collection of short stories, Send Me Work (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern; 159 pages), are on the verge of realizations about their unforgiving communities; that is, they are discovering the forces driving the blue-collar world around them, and, more interestingly, uncovering complex emotional truths about themselves. This is often quite funny. In “Bye-Bye, Larry,” (a Pushcart Prize winner originally published in Zyzzyva’s Spring 2005 issue), the female protagonist, a queer, soon-to-be-laid-off oil worker, muses on the differences between herself and the plant’s female manager: “it occurs to me that if I were taller, smarter, had paid more attention in school, I might have been a power lesbian too.” At other times, the moments are disappointing lessons in the hardships of everyday life.

Throughout these eleven stories, the locations and circumstances change — from print shops to rail yards to oil refineries and more — but the various working worlds are all deftly rendered. In “The Severac Sound,” two talented, young musicians visit the deathbed of their mentor, and a hard-working female oboist has to accept she is not as gifted as her slovenly male competition. In “Muscle Memory,” a coming-of-age story set in post-Katrina New Orleans, Destiny, an aspiring welder, realizes that “taking responsibility was easy… the hard part was all the ruination that lay outside of your responsibility.” The stories are littered with important, small details, like the type of cane used for making a superior oboe reed or the specific vocabulary of an oil worker.

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