Short is big, at least as far as summer fiction goes. New collections from the likes of Rick Moody or Miranda July can make the jitney trip pass like a dream, bridging the gap between midtown and Montauk as smoothly as a short story does between, say, the latest issue of Vanity Fair and that copy of The Magic Mountain you keep lugging around. Twenty Grand, the debut collection by Rebecca Curtis, showcases the talent of one of the more promising short story writers in America today. It’s a mixed bag, as most collections tend to be, but it’s also a wonderful opportunity to observe a younger author taking risks before her talent hardens into the smooth, overpolished carapace that too often accompanies mainstream literary respectability.
The 14 stories in Twenty Grand veer—lurch, sometimes—between a restrained, concise realism and the experimental excesses of a homegrown magic realism. The best tales, including the beautifully composed, deeply moving, yet unsentimental title story, are set in unnamed small towns in the Northeast, fading blue-collar resort communities where the failed amusements of years past—boardwalks, alpine slides, ski lodges—bear the patina of despair, not nostalgia (Curtis grew up in New Hampshire). “Hungry Self,” the opening tale, introduces the exemplary Curtis narrator: female, young, nameless, intelligent yet possessing the kind of passivity that mistakes recklessness for decisiveness; a lightning rod for minor disasters and men for whom the term “loser” seems too charitable. It’s a distinctly American subtype, still best embodied by Jean Seberg in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless.
Curtis studied poetry at NYU, and that background has served her well in these spare, heartfelt creations. In “Hungry Self,” the young woman is a college student, waiting tables at a lakeside Chinese restaurant in New England where you don’t want to order the egg drop soup. Her homely lesbian ex-psychiatrist sits at her table, accompanied by her lover. The waitress thinks mean thoughts about their weight and the shrink’s former kindness to her, while lusting after the proprietor’s son. That’s pretty much it for plot, except for two events, one calamitous and the other redemptive, that are like bottle rockets stuck in lieu of paper parasols in a summer drink. “Summer, With Twins” reframes the same story—student catastrophe waitress. Though this time the lakeside restaurant is a steak-and-seafood joint. The story’s emotional texture is also similar, but Curtis’s command of language, her nuanced and
subtle, deceptively offhand gift with the interplay of character and dialogue, give the piece a lush dreaminess wonderfully at odds with its mundane, even dreary setting.
Twenty Grand‘s other standouts share this New England milieu, and a narrator who, despite rudimentary changes in age, background, and family, seems pretty much the same from tale to tale. She’s 15 in “The Alpine Slide,” the youngest employee at the eponymous, failing summer attraction: “The ride was two minutes long and you flew down the mountain as you flew in dreams, through seemingly solitary woods that leaned in of their own accord to block out the blue above. It was unforgettable, beyond your control, and you believed you were about to die.”
In “The Witches,” she’s a few years older, accompanying her stepfather on his sailboat across the lake, a “guy whose idea of a great day was breaking some ones and spending the quarters at the penny arcades.” The everyday turns tragic with the inevitability of Greek drama, and the narrator walks away windblown but unscathed. The unsparing title story “Twenty Grand” feels like an instant classic, a compressed, heartbreaking narrative of adult loss, carelessness, and disappointment narrated, dry-eyed, by its child witness.
“The Alpine Slide,” “Hungry Self,” and “Twenty Grand” all originally appeared in The New Yorker, and Curtis has referred in an interview to the quality of the editorial guidance she received there. It shows. Most of the small-press stories, more experimental in nature, read like apprentice efforts, derivative of writers like Denis Johnson or George Saunders (Curtis studied under the latter) or even Shirley Jackson. Here, the stripped-down prose seems merely arid and non sequitur, more like a writing exercise than the finished product. It’s telling that the only two stories that are not told in the first person (“Monsters” and “Knick, Knack, Paddywhack”) are among the least successful. And “The Near-Son,” a clumsy, speculative story about abortion, could have been left out entirely.
Yet this is what the best writers do—stumble through unknown territory, walk blindfolded, sit beside strangers and listen to them mumble and rave. In 2005, Curtis received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, a cash prize that allowed her to travel overseas to research a novel, based on a true story, set during the Armenian genocide of the early 20th century. Based on what she’s demonstrated here, it will be a book to watch for. Rebecca Curtis is a hugely talented writer, and
Twenty Grand is a collection you can bank on.