Anatomies of Love

Greg Johnson Click to

gjohnson-217Greg Johnson's reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, Virginia Quarterly Review and Georgia Review.  He's also published two novels and five collections of short stories, including the recent collection Last Encounter with the Enemy (Johns Hopkins) and the novel Pagan Babies (Dutton).


An essay-review of

NINE INCHES.   By Tom Perrotta.  New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 2013.  246 pp.  $25.99.
EVIL EYE:  Four Novellas of Love Gone Wrong.  By Joyce Carol Oates.  New York:  The Mysterious Press, 2013.  216 pp.  $23.
BOBCAT AND OTHER STORIES.  By Rebecca Lee.  Chapel Hill, NC:  Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2013.  212 pp.  $14.95.  Paper.
ALLEGIANCE AND BETRAYAL.  By Peter Makuck.  Syracuse:  Syracuse University Press, 2013.  196 pp.  $19.95.  Paper.
SOME KINDS OF LOVE.  By Steve Yates.  Amherst and Boston:  University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.  258 pp.  $19.95.  Paper.

Jane Austen is alleged to have said that the only things worth writing about are love and money, a dictum that has surely remained current if one is speaking about the novel.  From Samuel Richardson through Austen, Charles Dickens, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Theodore Dreiser, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and through to such contemporary writers as Tom Wolfe and Toni Morrison (to mention only English-language practitioners), novelists have used this capacious genre to examine the power of love along with the effects of poverty, the conflict among economic classes, and the class system generally in both Britain and America.

The short story is another matter.  Especially now, in our liberal-democratic, post-Romantic literary culture, short-fiction writers relatively seldom deal with themes related to money or the lack thereof.  But the other half of Austen’s observation certainly remains true when one considers that love of all kinds dominates the stories populating our literary magazines and the new collections falling about us on all sides.

Love has been a major theme throughout the relatively brief history of the short story.  In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, pioneering masters of the shorter form excelled at writing tales in which the longing for and the (sometimes) achievement of love-fulfillment were the central focus.  Two of Anton Chekhov’s best, “The Darling” and “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” are great narratives of the way love can change the very core of human identity.  James Joyce’s “Araby,” “Eveline,” and “The Dead” all explore the nature of love at different stages of life—the adolescent romance, the youthful infatuation, and the middle-aged longing for lost love, respectively.  D. H. Lawrence’s “Odour of Chrysanthemums” and “The Horse-Dealer’s Daughter,” perhaps his best stories, are unforgettable narratives in which the immense force of love transcends even those of death and despair in the lives of the author’s beleaguered characters.

As suggested above, love in its many forms remains a pervasive theme in contemporary short fiction, from teenage romance to adult sexual love to middle-aged lust, from the ties that bind lovers, family members, and close friends to the kind of love, whether romantic or familial, that results in bitterness, desperation, and ultimate isolation. Nor does the theme limit the scope and impact of individual writers and the stories they have to tell.  The above examples suggest that such a focus can bring out the genius of such authors as Chekhov, Joyce, and Lawrence, and likewise the volumes reviewed here demonstrate that this immense theme does not baffle today’s short-story writers but rather seems to sharpen their diverse and ample talents.


Tom Perrotta is a fortunate author:  his novels are often best-sellers and two of them, Election (1998) and Little Children (2004), have been made into excellent and popular films.  Yet his first book was a collection of linked tales, Bad Haircut (1995), and now he returns to the shorter form with Nine Inches, in which small-town New England suburbanites pursue love in all its diversity.  Many of his characters are either teachers or students in schools not unlike the one depicted in Election.  The title story, for instance, refers to the “nine inches rule” instituted by one vice-principal for school dances:  “it stipulated that students had to keep their bodies at least that far apart while dancing.”
The protagonist here is Ethan Weller, a middle-school teacher with a wife, a toddler, and one on the way.  Ethan is delighted when he learns his chaperone duties at the dance are to be shared by Charlotte, an attractive, “Bohemian” art teacher whose freshness and beauty are in stark contrast to Ethan’s child-beleaguered, rather frumpy young wife.  The story is briskly told, if rather predictable.  Outside a men’s room, Ethan kisses the art teacher:

Kissing her just then felt perfectly normal and completely self-explanatory, the
only possible course of action.  There was no hesitation, no self-consciousness, just
one mouth finding another.  He ran his fingers through her hair, slid his palm down
the length of her back, then lower, tracing the gentle curve of her ass.

“Nine Inches” is a story that the late John Updike, who frequently led his own characters through the dance of suburban infidelity, would probably find appealing, but to put it mildly Perrotta lacks Updike’s verbal grace and precision.  All the stories in this collection, though well-paced and clearly written, feature a plain-spoken style that makes each one read like an efficiently composed synopsis for a movie.

Another intriguing but summarily written tale is “One Four Five,” whose title is a musical term referring to a “basic blues progression.”  The protagonist, Dr. Richard Sims—this is one of the few stories not in a school setting—finds himself turning to music as a consolation while living in a “grim condo,” his wife and children having commandeered the house after his infidelity has been revealed.  Unlike the rather romantic scene in “Nine Inches,” Sims’s cheating is hardly worth what he loses:  “The sex with Olga was quick and dirty.  It couldn’t have lasted for more than a couple of minutes.”  The theme of the story, and in fact of several others, is stated here in the story’s last few lines:  despite his enjoyment of his newly discovered love of music, “there was a faint current of dread running beneath his optimism, because good things turned to shit all the time, and you couldn’t always see it coming.”

The stories with adolescent protagonists have a similar tone.  The teenage boy in “The Test-Taker” (wearing a disguise, he earns money taking SAT tests for the benefit of other, less brilliant students) is unhappily involved with a classmate who pays him little attention:  “I wasn’t getting much of anything except a bunch of frustratingly mixed signals from Sarabeth Coen-Brunner, this artsy junior on whom I was nursing a severe unrequited crush.”  The boy in “Senior Season” at least has a girlfriend, Megan, but their relationship is likewise frustrating; she finally breaks up with him via a text message.  One of the best stories in the collection is the unexpected “Backrub,” in which a pizza delivery boy keeps getting pulled over by the same cop for various minor and, in some cases, non-existent offenses.  The boy is vulnerable because he is the only kid in his “posse” of friends who hasn’t been accepted into an elite university, and he responds with something like horror when the cop, middle-aged Lt. Finnegan, pulls him over for the third time and, apropos of nothing, offers him a backrub.  The examination here of a power differential and the presentation of a teenager’s bewilderment when an adult makes sexual advances are beautifully handled.

Perrotta’s stories address youthful love, marital infidelity, and middle-age longings with equal skill but, as noted above, the language lacks the polish and suggestiveness of the very best fiction.  To say that this book is primarily “an entertainment,” to borrow Graham Greene’s term, is not to belittle its stories, but rather to suggest that the reader who buys this book will get interesting plots, sympathetic characters, and clear writing, but not the ambiguity, narrative poise, and lingering resonance found in more “literary” writing.  In short, Perrotta resembles Stephen King rather than Steven Millhauser, but he is nonetheless that enviable kind of writer:  a natural-born storyteller.


Another storyteller who is both highly regarded and popular, Joyce Carol Oates—several of her novels and stories have been made into movies as well—nonetheless usually seems more concerned with the niceties of language, structure, and style than with plot and “suspense.”  In such early collections as The Wheel of Love (1970) and Marriages and Infidelities (1972), her tales were already boldly innovative; these many years later, one is more likely to recall the structure of individual stories (epistolary narratives, tales that move relentlessly backward instead of forward) rather than the actual plot details.  In her new gathering, Evil Eye:  Four Novellas of Love Gone Wrong, however, the plots are immediately engaging and suspense is palpable (not surprisingly, this book is published by Mysterious Press) even as the tales resonate with their allegorical, Hawthornean themes.  (Even in the 1980s, Oates observed that “every third or fourth story of mine is probably in this mode—‘realistic allegory,’ it might be called.  It is Hawthornean, romantic, shading into parable.”)

In the title novella, a rather timid young woman, Mariana, marries a much older man, the pretentious and intimidating Austin Mohr, famous director of a Performing Arts institute in San Francisco.  As the book’s subtitle warns us, this is no ordinary love but an invasion of Mariana’s being “as of a virulent infection.”  Mohr’s fourth wife, Mariana soon finds herself confronted by Ines, the first wife, who had married Mohr before Mariana was even born.  A once-beautiful woman (“like Catherine Deneuve”), Ines is a mysterious figure, a now exotic-looking actress who nearly causes Mariana to faint when they first meet:  for the “gaily chattering Ines Zambranco was missing an eye.  Where her right eye had been there was an empty socket.”   As in a tale by Hawthorne, this missing eye becomes symbolic of all that bedevils Mariana in her unhappy marriage, and leads to anything but a conventionally happy ending for her unconventional romance.

Even more compelling is a story of obsessive love, “So Near     Anytime    Always,”  in which another relatively naïve young person, a teenage girl, meets an older and rather mysterious “boy” (he turns out to be 22) named Desmond.  At first she is elated that she has her first boyfriend, but ultimately his affection for Lizbeth becomes obsessive; told at a quick-moving pace, evoking sympathy for Lizbeth that recalls the reader’s involvement with Connie in Oates’s most famous story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?,” this is a chilling, compact, and memorable novella.

In “The Flatbed,” a woman attempts a love relationship but, because she was molested as a child, she asserts that “All love is desperation.”  “The Execution” focuses on the perversion of family love and is the only novella told from a male point of view.  At first the narrative lays out a plot familiar from TV movies:  a fraternity kid murders his parents, or so he thinks, but the mother miraculously survives to identify him.  Later, however, she recants her initial accusation of Bart, and the meaning of “love”—this time, in its maternal form—takes on a series of unexpected permutations.  As in all the novellas here, and as in much of Oates’s fiction generally, desperation is a major component in any attempt to transcend the isolated self through impulses of love and longing.


The seven offerings in Rebecca Lee’s Bobcat and Other Stories are richly layered, rather like Alice Munro’s, and the writing is fresh and fine-tuned.  If these aren’t precisely love stories, nonetheless romantic love is a major concern in most of them, especially in the title story, which narrates with superb good humor and restraint that most treacherous of rituals, the Manhattan dinner party.  Here the hostess-narrator and her husband are an attorney and a novelist, respectively, and most of the guests are literary types—a book editor, a memoirist; what’s interesting here are not the details of the setting, the food, and the witty conversation, though these are presented with great narrative skill, but the subterranean complex of love affairs past and present, of longings never quite fulfilled.  Jealousy is rampant:  for instance, the narrator suspects the beautiful women in her husband’s latest novel are stand-ins for women friends of the couple, and so she suspects him of infidelity, a suspicion that puts the couple into “pure, extrarational opposition.”

Another excellent story is “Min,” featuring an undergraduate who is lassooed into an unlikely task by a Chinese fellow-student:  she is asked to travel to Hong Kong with him, visit his family, and supervise the process of arranging his marriage.  Though Min assures the narrator, Sarah, that this ritual is a mere formality, that “romance bores me,” and that he will not be obligated to marry the young woman chosen, nonetheless Sarah takes her task very seriously, finding that she is unexpectedly moved by the photographs and resumes of the many candidates for Min’s hand.  Similarly, in “Slatland,” a young girl named Margit is drawn into a relationship with a child-psychology professor (several of Lee’s stories are set on college campuses) who affects her life strongly on two occasions, first in 1967 and again in 1987.   On the first occasion, she is only ten years old, and has fallen into a serious depression because she senses that her father is having an affair and that her parents’ marriage is on the verge of collapse.  The professor tells her:  “For every situation there is a proper distance. . . .  Sometimes you just need to jump up for a moment, a foot above the earth.  And sometimes you need to jump very far.  It is as if there are thin slats, footholds, from here to the sun.”  This need to gain perspective comes in handy twenty years later, too, by which time Margit is married to a Romanian man whom she begins to suspect of having another wife and family back in the “old country.”  In this upsetting situation, she finds that her need for perspective—for visiting “Slatland”—is even more dire, and she recalls once again the advice of the professor who helped her so greatly when she was only ten.

Easily the best story in Lee’s collection is “The Banks of the Vistula,” in which a student assigned a term paper copies almost word for word the chapter from a book published in the 1940s that is mostly Soviet propaganda.  The book had not been signed out since 1956, so the narrator rests assured that her plagiarism will not be discovered.  But she has unwittingly set into motion a complex chain of events:  her professor, Stasselova, becomes intrigued with his “brilliant” student and asks her to present the paper at a symposium on Language and Politics.  Soon student and professor are engaged in a complex dance of a relationship in which each is both fascinated and perplexed by the other.  Lee handles masterfully the setting of a small Midwestern college; the minor characters—her roommate, her erstwhile boyfriend Hans—are richly drawn; and Professor Stasselova’s politically charged past (he was a Russian soldier during the Nazi reign of terror) contrasts tellingly with the narrator’s naivete and inexperience.  Superbly written, hugely ambitious, and unpredictable, “The Banks of the Vistula” is a story that continues to resonate even after several rereadings.

As suggested above, Lee needs a lot of space:  most of the stories here run over thirty pages.  It could be said they are less like traditional short stories than like compressed novels, whole worlds packed into ingenious, well-paced narratives.  Moreover, Bobcat and Other Stories is not merely a random collection of disparate tales but a unified book whose ambitions reach beyond the characters’ personal struggles with love and into the realms of politics and philosophy.  They amply repay careful reading and rereading, and constitute one of the best American short-story collections of recent years.


Peter Makuck, in Allegiance and Betrayal, deals with love relationships with a virtuosity and vigor similar to Lee’s.  His stories take place in a variety of settings, and they portray youthful love, family conflicts, and love between friends with formidable skill.  The first three stories, which suggest an unfortunately aborted novel, portray a young man named Tim Budney, who leaves home to attend a Franciscan-run college in Maine called St. Anthony’s.  They effectively recall the emotions of leave-taking, the plangent memories of his girlfriend back home, and his awkward attempts to find his identity as he departs a familiar environment and heads into unknown territory.

In “Visitation,” the movement is in the opposite direction as middle-aged Derek returns home again to visit his dying mother and his inconsolable father.  This is a wonderful mood piece, and Derek’s parents’ melancholy surroundings weigh heavily on their grown son’s spirit.  Makuck’s writing conveys the family’s sadness memorably.  Derek’s father has stopped going to visit his wife, and stays home in a depressingly rendered environment:  “TV greased the walls with its narcotic blue flicker.”  The old man’s refrigerator is “frighteningly empty”:  “There was a jar with one pickle afloat, a few black bananas, cold cuts, and two six-packs of beer.”  When the two men visit a funeral home, preparing for the inevitable, they endure the work of coffin-shopping:  “The coffins had supports curtained off so that each seemed to be fixed in permanent levitation, the magician gone.”  Throughout this bleak tale, Derek’s love for his parents imbues the writing with an almost sinister melancholy, and finally he learns only that “The death of parents didn’t leave you free; they left you haunted by memories.”

Other stories deal with marital love, the treacheries of friendship, and the brittle nature of family ties.  In “Booger’s Gift,” the title character, and he is a “character” in more ways than one, charms the narrator, Greg, into an advantageous deal while trying to buy Greg’s used car.  Though Booger ultimately gets away with some of Greg’s money, nonetheless Greg learns a valuable lesson about the rift in his marriage—he has recently separated from his wife—and how he must try again to make his relationship work.  In “Friends,” several married couples commiserate with one another over the sudden disappearance—no preparation, no good-byes—of another couple they knew and loved well.  Near the end of the story, one character exclaims, “I mean, how do you go from loving people, from being ready to do anything for them, to hating them?  I don’t get it.” And in “Family” (Makuck might have worked a bit harder on some of his title), a reunion brings the narrator, Mark, a card-carrying liberal, into collision with an aunt who sends holiday cards that include “a printed leaflet with a color photo of an aborted fetus in a surgical basin.  Merry Christmas.”  The two argue about such issues as Biblical literalism and gay rights, but just as Mark is about to leave the reunion in disgust, his aunt places her mark upon him:  “It was the first time she had ever kissed me, and as I drove through the altering colors of sunset, her kiss burned like a brand upon my cheek.”

If most of Makuck’s stories of “allegiance and betrayal” are tinged with melancholy, and leave his characters embroiled in romantic or family love relationships feeling a sharp sense of isolation, nonetheless the author’s adroit use of language is uplifting in itself.  Vivid and unsparing, these stories linger in the memory long after they are read and reread.


Steve Yates’s Some Kinds of Love, winner of the Juniper Prize, is certainly the most wide-ranging collection among those considered here.  The book’s protagonists include highway construction engineers, Civil War survivors, designers of a catalogue that features sex toys, gay men embroiled in a troubled relationship and, for good measure, a Pakistani terrorist.  In the broadest sense imaginable, these are love stories, though the characters are so involved in the minutiae of daily life that love comes at them unexpectedly, but no less forcefully for that.

In “The Fencing Lady,” for instance, which suggests the influence of Annie Proulx, the highway engineer, Dale, works with a woman to install fencing along a stretch of road outside Seligman, Missouri.  Both are rough-hewn characters, and soon find themselves making love inside “Porta-Pottys” and in the beds of pickup trucks.  The woman, Patty, brings an efficiency and matter-of-factness to the lovemaking:

Her arms hemmed him, pressed him into a softness beneath which he could feel
the knot and rill of confident muscles.  Their meetings held an aura of abandon,
like the feeling he remembered leaping off bluffs into Table Rock Lake, and
Patty’s immediate return to business afterwards finalized and cleansed the activity
like water.

When Dale realizes Patty is cheating him by using inferior materials for the fence construction, the love affair comes to a bittersweet ending.

Other stories deal with relationships already broken up but still resonant in the protagonists’ lives.  In “New Father,” Mike and Teresa share custody of their four-year-old son, Conrad, but the situation is agonizing for Mike, since Teresa brings a parade of new men through her house, exposing the boy to them.  During one visit with Conrad, Mike learns that one of these boyfriends had had a wreck while Conrad was in the car, an incident Teresa had kept secret from her former husband:  “Teresa had lied to him, concealed the wreck for months now. . . .  The lies were a circle, one stemming from the other to another, inseparable, churning.”  One of the most melancholy details in “New Father” is the three-word phrase the boy, Conrad, supplies to his parents’ every query:  “You tell me.”  Clearly the boy at age four needs answers, and just as clearly seems to know they will never come.

One of the best stories is “Homecoming,” in which a young woman does volunteer work at a makeshift Union hospital before heading home to Missouri after the Civil War.  The most memorable scene is her encounter with a seriously wounded young soldier whom she tends and comforts the best she can.  As she finishes shaving him, she notices that he is sexually aroused, and she accedes to his plea:  “I will never see another woman.  Please.”  Deftly giving him sexual relief, she risks her own reputation and her family’s good name, after which the young man tells her:  “I did not mean to do this to you, to put you through this. . . .  You are noble.”

Although Yates is to be praised for his attempt to portray so many “kinds of love,” a couple of the stories are not really convincing. “Tuesdays at the Center for Excellence” portrays two gay men improbably named Cruett West and Inns Jameson.  Their testy relationship as former lovers is sometimes amusing to behold, but the writing is rather stilted, as when Cruett says, “Inns Jameson, don’t you dare be so fustian with me!”  Even less believable is the relationship in “The Green Tomato Marquesa’s Night of a Thousand and One Triumphs,” which has a dubious love scene between a middle-aged librarian named Maudelynne Arnot Dabb, whose major concern in life is correctly shelving such periodicals as Saving Louisiana!, and a young Pakistani whose primary goal is to blow up New Orleans.  Nonetheless they do get together:  “After dinner they made love.  Deprived of women and isolated, Jamil lasted all of one minute and thirty-three seconds.”

Still, Yates is to be admired for his wide-ranging ambition in this book.  Some Kinds of Love is for the most part beautifully imagined and written.  If the dubious maxim “Write what you know” is here ignored almost to a fault, the author, like the other short-story practitioners reviewed here, is certainly an intrepid explorer of the human heart.