In previous columns I have mentioned how I enjoy taking breaks from reading long books by perusing a short story or two. I suppose you could describe it as the literary version of cleansing one’s palate.
I just finished a superb short story collection, “Township,” by Jamie Lyn Smith. She will discuss her book in Centerville in October.
“Township” contains a series of linked stories which are set in Appalachian Ohio. The author has a familiarity with a number of communities in that area. She resides in Knox County. The cover of the book notes that “Smith examines the strains that intimate family ties put on lives worn raw by collective history.”
The short story form presents some challenges. One difficulty involves describing characters and making them feel genuine in just a few pages. That’s one strong suit for this writer, she has a pithy way of introducing us to her protagonists in just a few sentences.
On the first page of her first story, “Nature Preserve,” we meet this guy: “Ross was a notorious local eccentric, semi-retired ‘environmental attorney, activist, and rabble-rouser’ - Or so read his business card.”
She didn’t even say what he looked like but I could picture him instantly. In an interview the author explained to me in that story she “went for the low-hanging fruit,” as in baby animals. Nobody can resist a baby animal, right? A young boy is trying to protect a baby deer from his gun-happy relatives.
In the next story there’s a party at an ashram: “Evan opened a huge suitcase full of costumes and handed them out. There was a tutu. A headdress made of peacock feathers, A jackalope costume. A Richard Nixon mask.” Wow, a Nixon mask. That really got me.
“A Line of Four Silver Maples” introduces us to a family that has a ne’er do well member named Roby. Roby is a charismatic grifter and profoundly untrustworthy. He takes advantage of everybody he can: “Roby was working steady and claimed to be sober. She didn’t know that Roby didn’t need to drink when he was chewing down pills.”
Those pills are the scourge of Appalachia. Roby’s cousin Paul is a schoolteacher with a secret. When Roby turns up again he and Paul begin spending time together. Roby charms Paul out of his protective cocoon. And just as that is happening Roby takes off again. What has he absconded with now? Besides our hearts?
The final pair of stories in the collection are worth the price of admission by themselves. In “Lifeguards” we meet Jesse, a devoutly religious high school student who is spending the summer enjoying his new title of Snack Bar Manager at Laurelton Community Pool.
Jesse stands up to a bully. This scene, underdog versus lout, is definitive. But the story is so nuanced we eventually almost start liking the bully. Almost. The final story is an bizarre tale that features Jesse’s widowed mother, a deeply religious woman who finds herself falling in love with a convicted sex offender. Life can get so complicated.
Vick Mickunas of Yellow Springs interviews authors every Saturday at 7 a.m. and on Sundays at 10:30 a.m. on WYSO-FM (91.3). For more information, visit www.wyso.org/programs/book-nook. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
HOW TO GO
What: Jamie Lyn Smith in Conversation with Claire Myree (WYSO Contributor)
When: 7-8 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 4
Where: Woodbourne Library 6060 Far Hills Ave., Centerville
More information: 937-435-3700
Event is free; registration is required