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TBTS Reviews: Vanishing and Other Stories

August 25, 2010

Short stories can be a hard sell.  Even smart readers prefer novels in this day and age.  Once stories appeared in periodicals everywhere, now, big-name publications must trim their budgets, and fiction is the first to go.  Once the primary way writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald made a living, now, short stories are done for love, not money.   But short stories are still a good way to get you respect, if not fame and fortune; Alice Munro, for example, is among the first names off many writers’ tongues when it comes to naming the best writers working today.  Elizabeth Strout landed a Pulitzer for her collection Olive Kitteridge last year.  Now, in this collection of  fourteen stories, Deborah Willis establishes herself as a rising star, a powerful force, a contender.

Willis is a fearless writer.  She is not afraid, for example, to attempt to trace the whole arc of someone’s life, from childhood to middle age, in eighteen pages.  She dares to use the second person, a form decidedly down on its luck, last spotted in a Choose Your Own Adventure book.  She adopts first person for the voice of a young member of the opposite sex in one story, and in another trades off first person between a father and a daughter, living alone together on the prairie.  And she does it all with maturity, insight, and, believe it or not, humility.

Weeks pass and the police give up their investigations.  The newspapermen who wrote “Local Writer Vanishes” find other stories.  Months go by, then a year.

Marlene and Bea drink afternoon coffee and their conversation slips back to the everyday: the price of potatoes at Loblaws, who’s a good doctor and who’s not, what kind of pictures are showing these days.  Marlene goes to shul more often, and stands for the Mourners’ Kaddish.

But Tabitha imagines that her father stepped onto a bus, then onto a boat, and soon they’ll receive a postcard from India.  She imagines him showing up in five years, his hair greyed or gone, with stories of living in Oregon, or Alaska, or the Alps.  She imagines he simply moved into an apartment downtown.  Sometimes – and this really puts ants in her stomach – she imagines he is hiding somewhere in the house, behind the couch or in the closets.  She checks under her bed every night before she goes to sleep.

Willis is a native of Alberta, and now lives in Victoria, British Columbia, where – like this reviewer – she works as a bookseller.  She is not one of those authors who remains bound to her homeland, unable to move from the prairie or the mountains or the syrupy heat of the South, but she is not afraid to return there, either.  The flavor of Canada, which an American would take for granted as familiar only to discover upon sampling that it is not at all, comes through clearly in many of these stories.  Her writing is informed by, but not prisoner of, her homeland, but when she wants to bring the everyday strangeness of the place to us, she can do it with style:

Once I started telling it, I couldn’t stop.  I talked about how hot it’d been that day, and how it’d cooled so suddenly the sweat on my shirt made me shiver.  Lightning shattered the grey sky every few seconds, and clouds spooled and unspooled themselves.  The rain hit hard, but I didn’t move from the field.  Not even when the funnel cloud dropped and skimmed my neighbor’s land.  Not until it blew the hip roof off his barn.

Then I climbed into my truck, pulled it over to a bluff of trees, sat and listened.  That’s what I remember most.  The colour – that grey – and the noise.  Rain and hail against a metal roof.  The wind shot nails and boards past me, hail cracked the front windshield and smashed the side window.  Glass landed in my lap, hailstones clattered onto the floor.  And then it was over.

The quiet was as hard to take as the storm’s noise.  I watched the weather spin alongside the prairie, leaving as fast as it had come.  The only sound was water that streaked into the cab, pooling around my boots.  The funnel had touched down for less than two minutes.  It was nothing.  It wouldn’t even make the news.

Willis’s themes – lives shaped by absence, secrets kept and secrets discovered – resonate clearly but subtly.  Her language is economical and precise.  She is like one of those gifted musicians who can pick up an instrument for the first time and within minutes play it as easily as all the others she’s mastered.  She has a great gift for voices, changing from story to story yet sounding authentic in each one.  There are breathtaking, how-the-hell-does-she-do-it moments aplenty, too many to miss.  So if you’re a serious reader, even if you avoid short stories as a matter of course, find your way to this collection.  Deborah Willis is one to watch.

Vanishing and Other Stories, $13.99 trade paperback, Harper Perennial.

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