Dennis Must’s stories are at times both unsettling and tremblingly genuine, and once the reader gives herself over to them, worth consideration. Not that stories about immolation, cross-dressing, prostitutes, Bible study beauty pageants, family, and loss normally aren’t. It’s just that the stories come on slow, and before you know it, you’re sitting in your living room pondering whether you should be imagining a grieving widower dressing up in his dead wife’s clothing.
Must is capable of creating dynamic sentences, and while he uses words not necessarily foremost in everyone’s vocabulary (some dictionary checking is necessary and beneficial), once understood, these words explode into perfect meaning. There is nothing more satisfying than setting off a phrase that energizes an entire paragraph.
Must’s best assets are his descriptive abilities – architecture, landscape, furniture, people – and his unparalleled expertise with men’s and women’s clothing. His best stories include both these qualities, and his worst limp along with painfully overwritten dialogue or unjustifiably obscure story endings.
With this description of an aging prostitute in “She’s a Little Store Inside,” the care and mystique Must imparts is refreshingly original:
Like a plaster of Paris palmist inside a cloudy glass arcade box she sat staring out her window. You place a nickel into a slot, her wooden hand overturns a Queen of Spades, a cardboard fortune drops out a cupped opening—somewhere, you imagine, below her skirts.
My favorite stories were “The Hireling,” with its rich landscaping descriptions, and “Star-Crossed,” which takes place in a mortuary. Closely following were stories like “Queen Esther,” where a son is introduced to the secret campy world of his mother’s women’s Bible study, and “Lament,” where all of the narrator’s dead loved ones inhabit his mind.
Must’s successful stories work because he grants the reader admission into places we normally wouldn’t be allowed access. His stories work to make the unfamiliar familiar, and in the process they often become uncanny. Take this moment from “Star-Crossed”:
Tom opened the doors of a giant metal cabinet, a walk-in closet set against the wall of the cavernous garage. On one side were shelves of car door handles, carburetor heads, boxes of spark plugs, distributor caps…; and on the opposite side, trays of eyes—every shade imaginable—false teeth, reading glasses, drawers of toupees, vials of coloring to shade the paraffin wax, limb prostheses, plus a separate compartment where mourning suits and dresses of every vintage hung.
While the short length of the stories made reading them manageable, I began wishing towards the middle of the collection that some were longer. It would have been nice to inhabit a story for a while before exiting it and working to enter the next one. Interestingly, since the stories were brief and included similar characters, if not recurring life details, the pieces began to blend together, lending cohesiveness to the collection.
Though there were some infelicities in the writing, I would recommend these stories to a reader willing to investigate, not only the more closed-off areas of society, but also the deep sounding of the human heart while attempting to understand loss.