I was delightfully surprised as I delved into this 2017 Summer issue of Ploughshares, a journal filled with fiction and nonfiction stories and essays from a variety of writers. While I recognized the names of several of the authors here, I was also introduced to other writers that I found very interesting.
Each issue of Ploughshares is guest-edited by a prominent writer, and this current issue was guest-edited by Stewart O’Nan, known for such works as his book Snow Angels, which was adapted to a movie in 2007. In the introduction, he shares that he “chose what seemed the freshest and best to me, the most interesting, the most well done, the Truest” stories he could from the submissions available. I can definitely see that being true after having read the stories presented in this issue.
I was practically giddy when I saw that one story in these pages was from a favorite author of mine—Stephen King. Not only was it written by someone whom I believe to be a truly great writer, but it was a different kind of story, something wholly unlike but eerily familiar to his other works. In “Thin Scenery,” we are presented with a story in a play script format, with narration lines identified by speaker and background and actions described in offsets and italic text.
We meet the main character, Mr. Crosby, very soon into the story and come to learn that his sense of reality has shifted significantly in recent weeks, pushing him further and further away from the concept of “normal” life. He tries to make sense of it, but realizes that people around him must be in on the conspiracy to deceive him and becomes increasingly more agitated. This story brought to mind works from Phillip K. Dick, and I love that it was presented in a script format, allowing us to fully sympathize and understand the blight of Mr. Crosby. Overall, this was a great read.
Another short story in this issue that I loved was “Julia and Sunny” by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum. I found it intriguing that this short story is written in the “we” pronoun, where the two main characters present the story together, telling information as a set throughout most of the story. For example, “We liked it when Julia dropped in on us unannounced. She made us feel romantic.” They retell the story of how their two best friends met each other, but that isn’t the focus of the short story. The focus is more on how their two best friends broke up, and how it affected them. They found themselves only connected to Julia and losing almost all touch with Sunny, the one that they have idealized.
Back when they first met Sunny, they longed for him to call them, to include them in his inner circle, and when Julia started dating Sunny, they were shocked to learn, “He liked us back. That was the great, unhoped-for gift of it all, that Sunny—whom we had admired from both near and far [ . . . ] appeared to find pleasure in not only her company but ours.” When Julia and Sunny separate, they are devastated that Sunny doesn’t keep contact with them and they never see him. Later, one of them runs into Sunny at an airport and tries to return something in an envelope that belonged to his daughter. What he did with it deeply affects the narrator, who thinks, “I find myself wondering if his treatment of the envelope is a reflection of how he feels about us.” This story reminded me so much of the relationships I have had and lost over the years with other couples when they too have broken up. You can never keep both friends, and it’s always difficult and awkward to cope with their separations.
Another very interesting story by Christie Hodgen, “The Candidate,” shares the chance encounter between “Sammy” and Bill Clinton. Sammy is cleaning up at the end of the shift at a deli when Bill Clinton walks in and wants a sandwich. Even though Sammy isn’t sure what to make of Bill Clinton, his presence in this small town shows just how charismatic and “down home” he seems. It is clear to Sammy that Bill Clinton is going to win the election after having met him, and tries to explain that to others only to be ignored. Sammy describes Bill Clinton as, “He’s so tall, for one thing—he takes over the room just by standing in it. And he’s vibrant, his complexion pink and robust, his eyes bright.”
Later in life, Sammy reflects on the situation, wondering “what things would have been like—for my father, for the country—if Tsongas had won instead of Clinton” because the change might have allowed Sammy’s father to break through the desolate life he had been living in order to do more, “maybe even finished school, become a teacher.” It is very interesting to consider how someone who simply demonstrated a higher likeability such as Bill Clinton is often able to beat out someone with more experience for political positions. The reasons people get up to go vote are often not the reasons we would want to see in a well-educated population.
While I’ve now been intrigued intellectually through Hodgen’s story, literarily through King’s story, and personally through Bynum’s story, what collection of stories would be complete without something downright creepy? In Victor LaValle’s “Spectral Evidence,” there was certainly an edge of creepiness! The main character is a fortune teller and, each day, she puts on a show for her customers, giving them what they need and getting a little money in return—often more later on once a relationship is established. However, the recent loss of her daughter and the unexpected situation that arises with a client has left the main character unable to sleep, haunted by a spectral visitor, which eventually changes her life. The story left me reflecting: if you knew that the afterlife was not a good place, how can you console those who have lost someone dear to them?
In between harvesting my gardens this fall and enjoying the last little bits of summer, I found great reads in several other short stories of other people’s summers, such as “The Last Summer of our Patriarch” by Idra Novey or “Midnight Drives” by Andrew Mitchell. Both authors tell stories that reflect on life, on family, and on uncertain futures for very different families. The heat of the summer and all of its accompanying joys and despairs came through nicely in their stories, bringing me back to our recent hot summer.
In this issue of Ploughshares, I found many pieces of short fiction that I enjoyed, even finding the hidden treasure of a Stephen King short story. I can’t wait to share this issue with others. There are so many great stories within its pages that I will remember for a very long time.