American Short Fiction differs from a lot of other literary journals in that, as its name implies, it only publishes short fiction. The Editor’s Note for this issue says that the stories explore “the voice of the collective—in particular, the women’s collective,” and while that description is not one-hundred percent applicable to all five stories in this issue, it pertains to more of them than not. The Editor’s Note also claims that these stories contain an above average share of violence and that “all this first-person plural and womanliness (womynliness?) and crime and violence may not sound like a blast to read. And yet it is.” That description, too, is a pleasingly accurate one. Many of the stories explore the edges of darkness but then allow light to resurface through reflection and humor.
A particular example of that is Laura van den Berg’s “Lessons,” which starts with a group of female bank robbers who wear gorilla masks during their Midwestern robberies. Pinky, the younger brother of one of the Gorillas, is unsuited to life as a robber, though he assumes the role of lookout during their escapades. Through the story, the Gorillas contrast themselves with a better-known group of female bank robbers who are making headlines in California—The Go-Go girls, who wear Snow White masks and carry semiautomatics. The Go-Go Girls supposedly perform acrobatic tricks with the guns during their robberies. Van den Berg writes of the Gorillas, “They are criminals, but they still have rules: no hostages, small scores, never stay in one town for more than a week.” Of course, havoc ensues in the story when some of these rules are broken, as the Gorillas try to step outside of their small niche. “Lessons,” though, is not all about light-hearted set-up and robberies: van den Berg fills in the back-story of the characters’ lives before they banded together and left home.
Another stand-out story is Robert Boswell’s “American Epiphany,” which follows a former PhD student named Tera as she picks up her husband, her former professor—whom she has been cheating on with one of his other students—from a mental health recovery facility. The story takes place in the middle of a tornado in Kansas where Tera’s car breaks down, and the only person she can apparently think of to rescue her is her lover, Kenny, whom she broke up with as soon as her husband, Dmitry, figured out she was having an affair (and then came undone). Kenny is perturbed but shows up to help and remains there to meet with Tera and Dmitry. They seek safety from the tornado clustered together in the girl’s room of a Hardee’s—a bathroom being the safest place during a storm—as Tera is trapped between “her men.”
“Souvenirs” by Tate Higgins also explores remorse and revenge. Set in an alligator park, the story tells the tale of Crawl, an employee, and an unusual encounter with a female visitor to the alligator park—which seems to consist of a souvenir shop, a display pool where the employees interact with the alligators, and a sketchy alligator farm hidden out back, away from the view of the visitors. The story investigates the emotions of attraction and compulsion, anger and perhaps (or maybe not) a hint of reconciliation.
The writing throughout this issue of American Short Fiction is excellent and surprising showcasing five powerful stories with raw but not exploitative emotions. [www.americanshortfiction.org]