Monday, March 19, 2012

The Best American Mystery Stories--1998, Part 4

photo: front cover, from its Amazon page

Another post in my series of critiques and reviews of the short stories in the volume.  The hope here is that the reader will check out the authors reviewed positively here, as many of them are still publishing.  The other blog posts can be read here, here and here.

Con Doctor, by Jay McInerney

Very well-written story, done with a bit of morbid flair.  Title has a double meaning, as the main character is a doctor in a prison, but also an ex-con himself, who still feels like one.  He's guilty about beating the system (explained at the end), and an ex-addict, with that kind of remorse and guilt, and in fact he feels that he's a con in his own life, as he lives with a gorgeous ex-addict with perfectly augmented breasts (her comments and attitude are amusing) and he feels that he has too much money, too much of a fake but good life that he doesn't deserve--and that he isn't even a good doctor.  The vast percentage of the story revolves around these feelings, and doesn't have much of plot, except that he has bad dreams, bad feelings, and he's going to work.  The writer knows that his readers will know where this is going, that it won't end well, and yet there's still an interesting ending, even though you'll be expecting the actual outcome.  Very character-driven story that makes the whole thing work because of it.  Left alone, without these feelings, the simple plot is nothing.  Good story to use to teach how characterization is just as important, if not more important, than plot.  Very well-done by a guy whose name I've seen before, but I can't tell you where.  I'm sure I have a book of his somewhere...

Black Dog, by Walter Mosley

Another double-meaning title, as the character is black, and very dogged, if you will; there's an actual black dog in the story, too, who adversely affects the black dog of a man, if you know what I'm saying.  Characters are also very clearly described as black, or not, and there's one described by the author as "the color of a cup of coffee with too much milk mixed in."  The reader, in fact, is hit over the head with the importance of skin color here.  The main character, with the name of Socrates Fortlow, is an ex-con--he'd committed an undescribed double-homicide and been free for eight years--who'd seen a man run over a dog, and then punched this man when he'd attempted to kill the dog (who, in all fairness, looked like he was in a lot of pain, and dying; anyone besides a vet and a man with a sincere desire to right his wrongs and save himself by saving another like himself would have put this dog out of its misery).  So he's on trial for breaking the nose of this white man with one good punch.  Nobody besides the dog comes across as extremely likeable, though the main character is oddly likeable enough, I guess.  And everyone, including, clearly, the author, is rooting for the dog to get better, which it does.  Though it'll be forever maimed, but liking life now anyway, which perfectly describes the main character as well.  You should get the impression by now that this story tries way too hard to be all of these things, but it succeeds, and the story, like the character and the dog, is likable despite its very obvious flaws.  All three try very, very hard, and succeed, scars intact.

Fans of the hard-boiled genre will know Mosley from his Easy Rawlins mysteries.  He writes a lot of other things, too, including erotica and "afrofuturist science fiction."  Sounds like a very interesting guy.

Faithless, by Joyce Carol Oates

A true gem in this collection, exceptionally well-written.  If I legally could, I would copy and paste the whole thing right here for all to read.  I don't want to write too much, except this story shows as much of what it's like to be a woman (especially a poor, farming woman, I suppose) as the previous story shows what it's like to be an urban, proud black man with a checkered past.  Very terse, angry characters in a well-described farm setting; the mystery involves the disappearance of the narrator's grandmother, told mostly through the vantage of her mother and aunt.  But the real story is the hatred towards the disappeared grandmother by the ignorant (though often polite) farm people, and especially the hatred of the two daughters towards their mother, who they were led to believe left them.  The reader won't be surprised by the ending--Why else would the story be in this collection?--but you will be surprised by the delivery of it.  In fact, the delivery of the POV of this story is interesting, as it veers from the narrator--well, actually, it always stays with her, I guess, but through clever slight of hand, Carol Oates makes it seem as if the daughters of the disappeared woman, and even the husband, have taken over the narration.  The eye veers from that of the narrator, to the daughters of the missing woman (her mother and aunt), to the husband, to the townspeople, to the narrator again, to her mother (who dies before it's all over, and who has a memorable rant), to the narrator again, to the short disclosure at the end.  The mystery is never officially solved, of course, but you have to assume that he caught up with her after all, and that the rest of the stuff in the town was acting...Very surprised not to have heard of this becoming a movie, or something, especially for cable, which tends lately to love era-specific mysteries with harsh characters.  Hmmmm...

Carol Oates tends to write longer short stories and very short novels.  I admit to not having read a lot of her stuff--if any--but this story makes me want to dig out the novels of hers I do have.  Since she's more prolific than Stephen King, I wonder how much of her stuff is of such good quality as this, but I'll have to see.

More to come.  Five stories left in this collection.

No comments:

Post a Comment