Steven Barthelme’s new short story collection opens with a whimsically tragic monologue delivered by Elliott, a 10-year-old trapped in a school for the gifted and sentenced to therapy after burning himself with a cigarette.
His soliloquy in “Siberia” is associative and playful, flavored with longing and linguistic sleight of hand. In four deft pages, Elliott likens his girl-crush to international journalist Christiane Amanpour and transforms bleak Siberia into an escape where everyone likes everyone and chili-cheeseburgers grow on vines. His utopian rendering of desolate tundra is a metaphor for the collection’s collective ambition: to draw hope from defeat like water from a stone.
But even as Elliott, line by line, pieces together an increasingly elaborate Siberian Eden, he knows a pipe dream when he sees one: “There isn’t any Siberia, is there? There is no place to go. If I go to Siberia, Christiane won’t be allowed to go with me, will she?” The question haunts the reader, but not Elliott, who persists in his fantasy, shaping a world he knows he’ll never visit.
Elliott is unlike other protagonists in Hush Hush by dint of his youth—at 10, he can’t know the signature nostalgia or muted regret that trails so many of Barthelme’s characters. Even so, “Siberia” is a perfect entry to the book’s thematic world. As Barthelme told me in an interview, “It’s a story about wishing things were true that one knows are not true.”
Hush Hush is both lopsided and contiguous. A handful of these stories are experimental in their delivery, but these are varied in their unconventionality. In “The New South,” a washed-up journalist delivers one outlandish fact after another, each coupled with an admission of falsehood. In “Heaven,” the collection’s lone female narrator speaks from her perch in the hereafter, a “very large Days Inn” where God and Jesus roll “on the carpet, laughing about Hell.” Within the story’s levity we’re reminded, viscerally, how difficult it is to soften toward forgiveness.
The remaining stories—the bulk of the collection—lean on traditional realism, and the characters seem cut from the same existential cloth, though each is flavored with his own brand of malaise.
In “Interview,” Quinn abandons his job as a tax lawyer, exhausted by the sham of affluence, to become a car mechanic: “In almost all ways an easy, pleasant life . . . except for . . . the sensation of walking around in an extra skin, like some weird deep sea diver who has forgotten why he came here.”
The unnamed narrator of “In the Rain” is troubled by his ex-wife’s accusation that he’s incapable of emotion. Over the course of four rainy days, he searches for his missing cat, the only other relic of his failed marriage. He stands “out in the rain thinking, This doesn’t mean anything. It just kept on raining.”
Set in casinos, late-night Whataburgers, parking lots, and apartment buildings, these stories deliver characters that could, in the hands of a lesser writer, easily turn clichéd. Yet each protagonist’s desire is distinct and nuanced, each is world-weary in his own right, and each faces a reflection of himself that he can’t, until the proper moment, begin to recognize.
Barthelme acknowledges the collection’s imbalance; these 20 stories were written over the course of more than a decade: “There is little in the way of design in the collection,” Barthelme says, “and in my mind the pieces are all in there in a pile as opposed to a plan. If they hang together at all, it’s only because they issued from one manufacturer’s sensibility and concerns.” That sensibility and those concerns are exactly what animate the collection’s beating, afflicted heart.
The tension binding these stories arises from the characters’ earned resignation and their adherence to scraps of hope; it hinges on the distance between accumulated mistakes and the mirage of absolution. Whether redemption can be grasped, the reaching is meaningful, and the longing behind the attempt is moving, and universal. These characters are plugging away at something, eking out fractions of victory wherever they can find them.
As the title suggests, Hush Hush speaks quietly and plainly. Attention is paid to every essential detail, and nothing is rushed or wasted. Sentences that appear straightforward reveal themselves as deceptively artful and refined, erecting stories probably best described by the author himself: “The aesthetic principle, then, is that the world is very beautiful, and it’s slipping away from you.”