Though this issue of American Short Fiction isn’t overtly themed, Editors Rebecca Markovits and Adeena Reitberger note that they had already selected the stories when they realized “four of the five were about work, the daily grind or the vocation, the answer to what William Carlos Williams called ‘the typical American question’: What do you do?” This does indeed serve as a nice framework for the five pieces of short fiction that make up the issue, work by Tia Clark, Karl Taro Greenfeld, Antonya Nelson, Matthew Neill Null, and Rob Roensch.
Tia Clark immediately won me over with “Nutcracker,” a story that follows a group of teenagers putting in the hours at a suburban sporting goods store. The prose is excellent: sparse and quick and direct, very fitting for a story that features characters whose dialogue is filled with utterances of “Oh word” and “nah” and “c’mon.”
From the beginning, “Nutcracker” is a story that will make you uncomfortable. The very first paragraph details the habits of “the footwear guys,” who hide behind the stockroom door and wait for a cashier—one of the teenage girls—to walk by. When she does, the footwear guys grab the girl and tackle her onto a nearby stack of cardboard boxes, taking turns dry humping her and grunting while the girl screams and laughs. The girls refer to it as rape, but instead of being troubled by this invasion, they treat it as an honor:
“They got me,” she’d warn the other girls. “Watch out.” They would laugh and lean in to hear the details, their elbows propped up on the counter. One might pretend to be scared, say, “No way I’m going back there!” But every girl went back there because she had to and because she wanted to.
Every girl lusts after the footwear boys, especially Miles—except Shelly. Because of her status as a “nice girl,” she is never included in the game. Shelly increasingly resents this, and begins to change the way she acts in an attempt to get closer to Miles and to be more like the other girls in the store. At first there’s a low level of risk to Shelly’s actions, starting with her attempts to flirt with Miles during his lunch break, but her efforts to change become more and more dangerous as she convinces herself that she has to be a particular type of girl to attract attention from a boy like Miles. It’s plain to the readers from the start that Shelly’s going to end up in some kind of trouble; the only question is how much, and will she be able to escape it.
Another standout in this issue was Rob Roensch’s “The Zoo and the World,” a story about and narrated by a man who works as a smuggler of rare animals. The story is framed by the man’s interaction with his young son, whom he is essentially smuggling away from the boy’s mother, but the energy of the piece lies more in the narrator’s own story, his background, the reason why he was drawn to his job and why he loves it. The most powerful element of this story is the narrative voice, which is startlingly poetic for a smuggler. The man often fights himself and contradicts himself as he finds the best way to frame and deliver his story:
Let me describe what she looked like when we met. She was not always his mother. She was always good and responsible, and could listen, yes. She squinted at the bones tattooed on my forearm and said, “I’m sorry you felt like you had to ink that into your skin,” and she was actually sorry. This is not a very good description. I met her at a bar where people like her did not usually go, a bar with several smashed mirrors and no name over the door. It wasn’t her idea, of course. She had drunk friends in those days because she was young. She was blonde! This isn’t working.
American Short Fiction is the perfect size for a literary magazine: small enough to consume in just an hour or two, yet big enough to constitute a full and satisfying issue. It’s a strong dose of fiction, offering enough variety in style to appeal to many different literary fiction fans. There is definitely no shortage of skill showcased in the publication.