The Expendables: Stories by Antonya Nelson (1989)
This book came out in 1989, my second year of college. I was 19, and beginning to embrace what became a failed hope that I would pursue the writer's life, specifically in fiction, and my first creative writing instructor at the college level was Antonya Nelson at New Mexico State University. It was from her that I learned quite a bit, including the somewhat earth-shattering news that there was such a thing as literary fiction. Literary fiction, to my not-quite-adult mind, was basically non-genre fiction. Later I'd learn about magical realism, and even later I learned about post-modernism, but one of the most difficult things for me to get around was channeling my imagination into a literary, non-genre sphere. I don't know that I ever really mastered that.
The more important message, though, something I still embrace and about which I learn more every time I explore the Genre (capital-G, which has to do with a different level of the writing sphere: capital-G for me encompasses Fiction, Poetry, Non-Fiction, Playwriting...and within that, you have Short Stories verses Novels, for example), is that short stories and novels are quite different.
I remember a conversation we had, about how frequently, if a novel can do the same thing as a short story, why would someone write a novel instead? I suspect that it has to do with "what sells" and that's even more true now than it was twenty-five years ago. Do people outside of college-level creative writing programs buy short story collections anymore, other than those written by Stephen King?
I hope so.
Nelson is a master of the short story. The Expendables was her first collection, for which she won the Flannery O'Connor award for short fiction (if you've read the other reviews, you already know this), and whose book jacket bears a blurb from none other than Raymond Carver.
There are a few occasions where the writer's hand is perhaps too visible. The most obvious for me is in "Helen in Hollywood," but even therein the content, if not the telling, is strong. Others may disagree, of course.
My favorite part of the book are the penultimate two stories, the paired "Mud Season" and "Looking for Tower Hall," about a family recovering from the sudden and bewildering death of one of its members. There are many other strong stories here, and I certainly recommend it to those who like their fiction to explore (and thereby reveal) the humanity within the internal process of living, and questioning, one's place within the specific relationships people find themselves. I revisited the collection this month, and I'm so glad I did. I'm an adult now, after all.
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