Short stories are mightily resilient little creatures — like those bacteria they keep discovering in the hearts of volcanoes or at the bottoms of oceans. You can bury them in the dense, lifeless-looking pages of college literary magazines, and they keep flourishing. Or you can fill them with pulpish aliens and gun-toting molls, and they happily motor on, outlasting all those snobbish Pulitzer winners who once sneered at them (not to mention their rarefied panels of judges). That’s because stories don’t need much to survive, just a situation worth pursuing, a character worthy of pursuing it and three magical Aristotelian ingredients: beginning, middle and end. Suddenly, you’ve got a perfectly formed, self-determining little beast on your hands. It breathes. It breeds.
Illustration by Lou Beach from “420 Characters”
Written and illustrated by Lou Beach
169 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $22.
If Lou Beach’s first collection, “420 Characters,” is any indication, short stories may even be adaptive and wily enough to survive Facebook — or, more accurately, Facebook’s formerly limited-to-420-characters status-update section, where these several-score pieces originated. But they are minimalist in word count only, since Beach’s imagination ranges as widely as his protagonists. Take, for example, Zuma Pedley, formerly of Lubbock, who “came to L.A. in ’02 with his guitar, some songs and an ugly dog.” Or Vera (Wooly) Lamb, who “dressed like a man, and could outcuss, outshoot and outdrink anyone in pants, Little Rock, 1922.” Then there are the many lone roamers of bars and strip malls, or the guy who “subcontracted to paint a suspension bridge that spanned the M’pozo River in Congo,” or that other adventurous guy who launches himself in a spaceship to Deep Colony 7, where he’s been told “things work, it is clean” and, thank goodness, he can still smoke his Marlboros. Just because a story is short, even really, really short, doesn’t mean it can’t contain multitudes. (Or span them.)
Beach’s stories are as husky and rough as bark, even when he writes in a variety of reinvented styles. There’s the Elmore Leonard/Jim Thompson-type story, in which you might encounter some nameless goon worrying about spinach manicotti in his teeth while trying not to look at a body someone has deposited in his back seat. Or the kooky collagist, Terry Gilliam-type story (by the way, Beach’s own collages adorn museums, album covers and many pages of this collagelike book), where a cargo ship might settle down on a nice city block and become Ikea, or a man wears a secret, preening finch under his hat. But Beach’s best stories occur in the even darker, funnier and far more surreal zone that divides men from women — sort of Larry Brown on the rocks with a Richard Ford chaser. Some of these are almost perfectly formed tales of what happens when men actually sense that elusive sense of an ending, too late to do anything about it:
“After she fled he became his own wife, ironing in his underwear, dusting the shelves, moving the figurines to the dining room table then replacing them carefully when he’d finished waxing the cabinet. Wearing her apron, he often made casseroles. Sometimes he’d sit on her closet floor and move his face through her dresses, like a dog searching in a field of high grass.”
“420 Characters” is an enjoyable, if distracting, book to read in one or two sittings — but the cumulative effect is one of gravity, humor and conviction. It’s a big world, this conglomerate world of tiny stories, a concerted series of experiments in miniaturization. Some of the experiments produce surprising and beautiful results (like the above story, quoted in its entirety), while others produce oddly jumbled monstrosities that resemble the sad demise of Andre Delambre in the 1958 film “The Fly.” In the end, though, it’s not only Beach but the short story itself that emerges triumphant from these pages. Because, let’s face it, there’s simply nothing you can’t do to the little rascal — chop it, compress it, digitize it, Osterize it, Oulipo-ize it, even Martinize or social network-ize it — it’s alive!
Scott Bradfield’s most recent book is the story collection “The People Who Watched Her Pass By.”