The world is ever-changing, but the old adage goes that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” The saying gives a tone of melancholy, or even world-weariness, alongside the enriching foundation of the human condition. We’re all in this crazy, mixed up mess together and yet alone unto ourselves. As the world changes and stays the same, the short-story is coming back into vogue as a treasured format in our fast-paced, breakneck world. J.S. Kierland’s 15 of the Best Short Stories from Underground Voices gives the crème de la crème of a life’s work in literary tapas.
Joseph Scott Kierland, born 1932, carries an impressive resume. After getting his Bachelor’s in Psychology at the University of Connecticut, he went on to Hunter College as a playwright and then won a full scholarship for his Master’s at Yale’s School of Drama. His work includes writing as well as editing in plays, novels, film (1982’s O’Hara’s Wife with Jodie Foster), and, of course, his short stories.
In 15, Kierland focuses on the human elements of worlds that have more rust than gold. His stories stand strong because they are so real. Flighty adventures into high society where clothes cost more than the average person’s salary and a single night on the town would bankrupt most of us are good for escapism, but the weight of experience comes so much more vividly through Kierland’s discussions of fellow people who don’t live in luxury.
15’s stories are divided into the country and the town, citing the old American folksong “Good Night, Irene” that goes, “Sometimes I live in the country, sometimes I live in town, Sometimes I have a great notion, To jump into the river and drown.” The song as a poem sets the stage for the true-world problems that beset the characters of Kierland’s stories.
In the country, which focuses on the American Southwest with its middle-of-nowhere towns where everyone knows everyone and small-town politics rule, Native American reservations, and the sudden economic and population explosion of Phoenix, Arizona. Through the eyes of the players in the stories, we see a man return home by riding the rails to visit his mother, dying of cancer. One of Kierland’s most famous stories, “Tuba City” (published Playboy Magazine, 2003), tells of a baseball scout finding talent on a Navajo reservation in a boy who can’t even afford shoes to train himself up. “Arizona Pie” shows the shocking change of the world to a man who has been in prison for years and fights to adapt.
In town is a very different setting, yet the humanity of the stories continue. A little Irish boy loves candy and gets yelled at by his elders just like any other boy, yet he has a strange connection with the IRA in “Crates.” “Robots” addresses the issue of armed drone aircraft piloted like video games out of Las Vegas. Less political, yet poignant as generations struggle to find work, is “Minotaur,” a tale of a boxer wanting to get into the ring with philosophy about how to fight.
Through his many down-to-earth-and-below-it perspectives and his keen ear for dialogue, J.S. Kierland leads readers through the foundation of humanity, seeing its cracks and where it crumbles as well as the load-bearing cornerstones that shoulder the weight for a time. It’s always shifting, changing, but it’s always a familiar structure.Powered by Sidelines