"Excommunicados" by Charles Haverty

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Charles Haverty has become conversant with the intricacies of a strict catechistic Catholic upbringing. And it seems to this lapsed Catholic that there’s only one way to be that familiar, that intimate with that particular mindset: you have to earn it. So one way to experience Excommunicados is as an in-depth review of such an upbringing, a series of war stories of the state of mind and its lasting effects.

And let me say at least near the outset that this year’s John Simmons Short Fiction Award winner is a highly deserving recipient. The stories plumb the depths of faith and lust, innocence and disillusion, and the ineradicable distances people place between each other. The stories which feature the conflict between one’s devout childhood and everyday adult realities focus on this schism, this disconnect between indoctrination and the world. This dichotomy lives at the center of these tales, generates much of the energy in them, and its principle gives its name to the collection.

There is the 6th-grade boy, agog at the beauty of his friend’s mother, and her irreverent attitude toward the parish pastor. There is the unscrupulous lawyer, who allows his client, who is his wife’s annoying brother, to go to prison wrongfully. A college freshman ends up after a long, harrowing day of driving at his high school buddy’s house, only to face a perplexing comeuppance. There are severe fractures in these stories, but there are also touching glimpses of redemption, unexpected shows of grace, that make these stories worth your while. They are uniformly excellent. I must have said that before about short fiction coming out of the University of Iowa, but I see no way around repeating myself.

Like all excellent short fiction, the events in these pages have a high clarity; motivation is clear and powerful and denouement brings that unsurpassed frisson of work exceedingly well wrought. The twelve entries on offer here show a master at work, and encountering such mastery is just a joy. Very highly recommended.

"Night in Erg Chebbi and Other Stories" by Edward Hamlin

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In Night in Erg Chebbi and Other Stories, Edward Hamlin demonstrates in nine dazzling selections an uncanny insight into human grief and guilt and expiation. On his way to a very well-deserved Iowa Short Fiction Award for 2015, Mr. Hamlin has produced a series of vivid, highly varied, and completely convincing pieces - they’re stunningly clear in their emotional depth and uniformly excellent in execution.

They range from a tenebrous midnight in the Moroccan desert, to the parched aridity of an isolated town in the western U.S., to the backwoods of fundamentalist cruelty and familial abuse in the Ozarks, to murderous and frozen New York at its worst. The collection leads off with "Indígena", a gratifyingly balanced account of a woman whose father was a fugitive Irish revolutionary and assassin. Her familiarity with weapons and understanding of the true meaning of being on the lam may have saved her from drowning in the raging Amazon River. This memorable story sets the tone for what follows: swift pacing, unexpected plot turns, and reverberant finishes that generate questions as often as they answer them.

The cover story follows, a simply beautiful, clear, and wrenching story about a woman who finally begins to come to terms with crushing guilt, desperately firing an assault rifle in the middle of the Moroccan midnight, naked and screaming. "Light Year" and "One Child Policy" take up the terrible outcomes for two very different American women, a professional photojournalist who is losing her eyesight and an frightened Chinese immigrant trying to make her way in a New York populated with bigoted thugs and a blizzard. The author fills these stories with effective background, as he does with every entry here, with a minimum of language and a maximum of effect.

"The Release" is the most emotionally affecting story among a lot of strong entries. In it a woman tries to balance her interests with those of her recently deceased husband’s ex-wife, and the emotionally handicapped daughter from the first marriage. How she succeeds at this is one of the truly surprising results in this collection full of surprises. In "Not Yet", "Head Shy," and "Clemency," we witness men whose variety of misdemeanors come from their wildly different backgrounds and personalities, but in which death is a constant, but the movement toward redemption is not.

Even in these brief stories, Mr. Hamlin reveals character only gradually, as the disastrous, or unfortunate, or careless, or simply misguided, events and impulses become clear and overtake the action and resolution. I have not been so impressed by a collection of short stories in quite a long time. These are all splendid, each with their multiple attractions, and deserve as wide an audience as we can muster. Without a doubt, take these up!