Review by Brad Gischia
You never know what you’re going to get when you open up a book of short stories. That’s part of the fun of it. If they’re good you’re golden, you find yourself turning pages and wishing for a little more of these characters or situations, however, the author decides to describe them. If they’re bad…you might be in for a long slog or just closing the book entirely.
With this collection of stories, I was happily in the former category.
The cover of Twenty Stories by Jack Driscoll would get you scolded by your middle school librarian. Box lettering on a blue background, seems boring, kind of plain. Inside there are wonders.
Driscoll is an award-winning writer.
“Jack Driscoll is the author of several columns of short stories and poetry, including Waiting Only to Be Heard, winner of the PEN/Nelson Algren Short Fiction Award. His novel Lucky Man, Lucky Woman won the 1998 Editors Book Award. He is also a poet. He lives in northern Michigan with his wife and teaches at Interlochen Center for the Arts.” (From his Penguin Random House Author page.) I didn’t know this information before reading the collection, but I could have guessed it a couple of stories in.
This volume collects stories from his books, Only Wanting to Be Heard, The World of a Few Minutes Ago, The Goat Fish and the Lover’s Knot, and six new stories.
Short stories can be difficult to write. Not only because of their length, which can prohibit long character development, but because you must be precise with your language to get the most out of the words you are choosing to use.
Driscoll is a deft hand. His characters are convincing and realistic with sparse qualifiers. As soon as your eyes hit the page the ice has gone out from under you and the cold water of the story washes over you. He captures a moment and hyper-focuses on it. It may be a week, a day, a second, and entombs the reader within.
“Rather than hire a sitter, Lydia’s invested in the installation of heavy-duty, tamper-proof cylindrical locks.” (From Gracie and Devere) How much does this one sentence speak about the characters? The sitter is too expensive, but the locks are not. Why does she need to have locks instead of a sitter? Because she has to work and the single cost of locks outweighs the every-time cost of a sitter. The kids are reliable enough to be left alone, but not immune to what might come in that they cannot protect themselves from. In one phrase Driscoll has shown all of this, including how good he is.
The stories are mostly based in the northern lower peninsula or the upper peninsula of Michigan, and involve people very much like the kinds of people I see every day. There is a stoicism to people who live with the elements, something he captures. The dependence on others is vital for survival, and he captures that in each of his stories.
The stories vary, dealing with everything from a parent leaving to the death of a childhood friend, but Driscoll makes you feel every moment. They’re easy reads, most no longer than ten or fifteen pages, and you can easily set it down for another time or binge through a pile of them at once.
It’s hard to pick any stories that distinctly stood out to me among the twenty that are in this collection, they all hit a certain note that makes them interesting and fun to read on their own.
One main theme is the isolation of the geographical area. The remoteness of the country that Driscoll places his stories in runs through each of them, translating to how the characters react to their circumstances and the isolation they feel in their own lives. Sometimes that isolation is self-inflicted, sometimes it has been thrust upon them. In each case, the men and women in these tales take that isolation and have realistic reactions to it.
Another thing evident in the stories is the self-reliance that comes from living in a place that is environmentally remote. The time-period ranges from the fifties or sixties to more modern times, but as anyone who lives in northern Michigan knows, any technological advancements are only as good as the infrastructure. If the power goes out so does your internet, and very often your heat. You must be ready and willing to make hard decisions when forced to. That self-reliance is baked into the fabric of northern Michigan, and Driscoll accurately captures how people with that baked into their being react to stressful situations, sometimes disastrously.
I’m struggling not to give the stories away. I wouldn’t want to know the plots or endings. Each is a joy to read even when the subject matter is a little on the dark side. Twenty Stories by Jack Driscoll is a showcase of talent, and one completely worth the time and money to check out, and one I’ll be revisiting in the future.
If you’re interested in books by Jack Driscoll his collections can be found on Amazon.
Twenty Stories by Jack Driscoll
Published in 2022 by Pushcart Press