Wednesday, May 31, 2000

Short cuts

Small town stories from writer Stephen Dobyns.

Posted By on Wed, May 31, 2000 at 12:00 AM

Stephen Dobyns represents the most irksome of literary types: the talented multihyphenate. Although his name has never become a household word, his 31 previous books have established him as a novelist-poet-essayist to be reckoned with. Now, Eating Naked reveals him to be a wonderfully gifted short-story writer as well.

Fans of Dobyns' earlier works -- most notably 1997's The Church of Dead Girls -- will find themselves on familiar terrain in these stories. Dobyns has a gift for conveying the intricacies of small-town life, from the comfortable humor of lifelong neighbors to the seething fear and resentment of those who struggle against their sense of confinement. Dobyns' thrillers, such as Dead Girls, draw their tension from the uneasy alliance of those who find safety within the conventions of community and those who dream of breaking free. Unlike his novels, the lengths of which allow for long meditations on both ends of this spectrum, the stories in Eating Naked rely on shorthand and compress decades of frustration into a few well-chosen moments.

The protagonists in Eating Naked are not actors; they are acted upon by the world around them and, for the most part, they're sick to death of it. That's why Caspar Boudreau of "Devil's Island" abandons the safety of his suburban basement and follows his future son-in-law into the wilds of a state park, where the men hope to teach their womenfolk not to leave home again. The same sense of hopelessness seizes George Lewis in "Dead Men Don't Need Safe Sex" and inspires him to kidnap the wife he deserted, in order to convince her to stop dating other men. A lifetime of feeling ineffectual drives Floyd Beefus of "So I Guess You Know What I Told Him" to refuse assistance to the meter reader who has fallen down Beefus' basement steps and broken his leg.

Over the course of each story, the characters' inaction takes the form of protest. When Robert Boyd, the poet in "The Chaucer Professor," stays for several weeks in the hotel room that a college English department had only intended to finance for one night, the reader can almost hear Boyd thinking, Nothing I've ever done has made an impression on the world; if I refuse to do anything, will that have an impact?

It should be a recipe for failure -- this sort of plodding plotting gets young writers laughed out of fiction workshops. But Dobyns has an intuitive sense of his characters that allows small internal movements, even moments of self-pity, to attain the stature of external action. When Denise, the drugstore clerk of "Flaws in the Latex," decides to forgive her ex-husband and her boss for failing her time and again, the thought alone seems to move mountains.

Eileen Murphy writes for the Baltimore City Paper, where this review first appeared. Send comments to


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