It’s counterintuitive but true: In today’s economy, short-story collections sell far fewer copies than novels. Perhaps this partly explains the emergence of publishing’s newest category of “linked stories” or “a novel in stories,” labels basically intended to hoodwink buyers into thinking a book might be more like a novel than, well, a collection of short stories. And while there’s nothing wrong with a collection that focuses on overlapping characters or common themes, this emerging bias leaves little room for authors whose gifts are more fluid, more embracing, sometimes even gymnastic in their scope.
Hilary Masters is one author who has never encountered a person or experience he couldn’t fictionally inhabit. In his newest collection, How the Indians Buried Their Dead, the 81-year-old author of more than a dozen books gives readers an array of protagonists: a blue-collar retiree, a single mother, an ex-convict chef, a middle-aged diplomat, an aging Mexican writer and, my personal favorite, a quilter/adulterer. To read How the Indians Buried Their Dead is to enjoy a handful of precious and semi-precious stones, expertly polished and utterly unique.
No word is wasted here, from the artistry of Masters’ descriptions (“She looks pink with happiness, a fan’s coloring”) to the telling character details (“Parker had been carefully portioning the food on his plate so that the meatloaf, the potatoes, and the pureed carrots would all come out even”). And his physical portraits often serve as an aperture into deeper layers of narrative. For example, when the aging writer of “The Plagiarist” thinks of his wife, he remembers relishing “the small roll of flesh that circles her waist and that goes around, he knows, to inform the slight swell of her belly. … ‘If you like fat so much,’ she turned on him once, ‘how come those students you screw are always skinny?’”
Many of these stories are ultimately about the aftermath of betrayal, both real and imagined. It is always relationships, or the residue of relationships, that motivate the characters to re-evaluate the choices that led them to where they are. Many of Masters’ characters teeter on the precipice of change, but the routines accrued over the years are what truly reveal them. In “The Moving Finger,” a man calls an old girlfriend from an airport. It’s quickly clear that the two understand nothing about each other. But when the man recalls his ride to the airport that morning, we notice a starkly contrasting intimacy. His wife woke early to drive him, putting on “his barn coat over her night gown, a pair of his boots on her feet … he could call up the taste of her lips and was warmed by her aroma rising from the open throat of her gown—half woman’s flesh, half warm bed.”
On rare occasions, the nostalgia runs dangerously close to cliché, and the title story is one of the weakest for this reason. A man returns to the neighborhood of his childhood, now a run-down ghetto, and his memories of places where “a model car or a favorite top might still be hidden” come off as well-worn paeans to the good ol’ days.
In my favorite piece, “Double Wedding Ring,” an older woman uses the quilt she’s sewing as an excuse to visit the city in search of cloth, during which time she also meets her secret lover in a hotel room. The symbolism of her quilt design—the “double wedding ring” of the title—could have been a hit-’em-over-the-head conceit in the hands of a lesser author. But Masters uses subtle detail to turn it into something more: “…as if to treat herself, she uncovered an outrageous vermilion with black dots, like a slice of watermelon, that she was convinced would excite a rather prim alignment taking shape on one corner of the quilt. A delicate rose also caught her eye, though she had no idea where she would apply this fragment, but she promised a place for its freshness.” She could as easily have been thinking about this wonderful patchwork of a collection.
Mary Helen Specht lives in Austin. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in numerous publications. Her website is maryhelenspecht.com.