shortshortshort, Sept. 30-Dec. 9, 2006

Note: This post was imported from an old content-management system, so please excuse any inconsistencies in formatting.
“First Responders”
“The Flying Boy”
“The Rules of the Game”
“My Share of Sacrifices”
“The Fifth of November”
“With Strings”
“The Usual Things”

Super-short story writer Bruce Holland Rogers sends out three stories a month to his subscribers for an economical $10 per year. Does the reader get his money’s worth? With this group of eight, I would have to say yes—and then some. Not all of these stories are hits, but most are thought-provoking, and some are true gems.

With “First Responders,” Rogers provides a glimpse into the lives of three young firefighters, with an emphasis on their private fears. The author’s streamlined style fails him on this one. Perhaps three characters is more than this ultra-short form can bear, since Rogers can only give the reader a shallow look at each man.

“The Flying Boy” scrutinizes the relationship between Will and his father, who abandoned his family when Will was just a boy. As an adult, Will has done his best to avoid the man, but now his father is senile and dying. The reunion feels true to life. Much goes unspoken, but Rogers provides enough clues that the reader can imagine Will’s inner turmoil. The extended metaphor of flight allows this story to build to a poignant conclusion.

“The Rules of the Game” paints a humorous barroom incident: Nigel wants to teach his friends a card trick/drinking game he learned the night before in a dream, while his friends are too distracted to pay attention. His doggedness in following through on the card trick provides much of the humor, and his increasing frustration sets up a delightful punch line. Despite the ultra-short form, Rogers crafts a busy scene with multiple characters without ever confusing the reader.

Clarity suffers in “My Share of Sacrifices,” a character sketch of a Food Bank director who has to man the phones for a weekend. The protagonist’s pettiness comes through loud and clear, but does Rogers have a deeper point to make? Perhaps something about the self-absorption of some charity workers? I’m not sure.

Garrett and Anne are war journalists home from assignment in “The Fifth of November,” a meditative piece using Guy Fawkes Night fireworks as both setting and metaphor for armed conflict. In the course of this brief story, Rogers examines Garrett’s hopes for his young daughter and his thoughts on the symbolism of the fireworks. The two themes may seem unrelated, but intertwine effectively. Explosions and flashes of light become more than mere fireworks, both to Garrett and to the reader, and the story achieves a degree of resonance—no small feat for such a short form.

“With Strings” begins by invoking a memory of Scheherezade: a woman plays enchanting music by the roadside every day of her life, and when Death comes for her, she buys time for herself and the world by playing on. Unlike the storyteller of The Thousand and One Nights, this Scheherezade’s tale can only end one way. Rogers’s vision of the inevitable conclusion is both logical and touching.

“Missing” is an odd tale that begins, “My wife has lost her husband.” The dichotomy between husband and narrator persists until the ending. It’s a truly perplexing story, but what is Rogers trying to say? The split suggests alienation, depression, or even some deeper mental illness. As for the narrator’s eventual recovery, is his “cave of pillows” a cocoon or a place for hibernation? This story will please folks who like puzzles that lack solutions or ambiguous stories that suggest a variety of interpretations.

Rogers introduces “The Usual Things” with this provocative line: “This one is for my MFA students who were debating whether it was possible to do what I hope I have done with this story.” The question was probably this: Can you tell a life story in one paragraph, including the individual’s darkest secret? The result is an interesting and largely successful story about an average fellow who grows up, marries, raises a family—and murders his gardener in a jealous rage. While “The Usual Things” works well as a mini-mystery, it also has a disturbing and perhaps unintended effect on the reader. Is it possible to summarize anyone’s life in a paragraph? Obituary writers do it all the time, of course, but no one reads obituaries for a glimpse of the deceased’s true self. I found it unsettling that anyone’s life could be distilled into so few words.