Book Review Archives

Tartts Three: Incisive Fiction from Emerging Writers

By: Joe Taylor, Debbie Davis, Tina Jones, Tricia Taylor, eds.
Reviewed by: Tony Crunk
Swallow Press
$15.95, Paperback

Tartt’s Three is an anthology culled from the manuscripts submitted to the third annual First Fiction Contest, which awarded publication to two short story collections by writers who had not previously published such a work. Given the competition’s lack of editorial agenda, these twenty-three stories amply suggest the broad range of subjects, styles, and voices that contemporary American fiction so vitally encompasses. There is something here to provoke and challenge, as well as delight, readers of every inclination.

In a preface, the editors note that the contest’s two prize story collections have overtly political contexts: "Xujen Eberlein’s Apologies Forthcoming presents a level appraisal of China’s Cultural Revolution and its aftermath, while Carol Manley’s Church Booty offers a by-turns humorous and tragic look at racial relations in America." Other stories share this political orientation, notably Sandra Kolankiewicz’s "Curious Fish in an Invisible Sea," which takes place in a war-haunted contemporary Okinawa, and Robert Maxwell’s "Hard Scrapple," which glimpses two aging Vietnam veterans who have long ago come to terms with their war experiences (or not).

The stronger stories, however, invoke the relation of the "personal" and the "political" more subtly. While the above selections illuminate lives shaped dramatically by broadly public, historical events, others examine the interplay of power and vulnerability that is definitive, in more intimate microcosm, of "the political" in every life.

In Jacob Appel’s "Hazardous Cargoes," a surly truck driver and a needy young runaway come to exchange roles of power and powerlessness through a brief encounter. In Bonnie Roop Bowles’s "Bear," a young girl is introduced (and nearly sacrificed) to the violent, adult-male culture of her otherwise benign and trustworthy stepfather. In C.B. Anderson’s "Taken," two estranged brothers discover their respective vulnerabilities in parrying for the attentions of the same woman. Such stories, though modest in scope, evoke a rich and satisfying complexity of emotional experience.

The weaker stories seem to share one of two distinguishing traits: they rely on more overtly "dramatic" events (murder, suicide, etc.) for their emotional heft, and suffer in nuance and subtlety as a result; or they invoke overly familiar situations (drug-addled-teen-suburbia, young-prostitute-big-city-mean-streets, etc.) and do not pass beyond the predictable.

However, all the stories contain their moments of quiet illumination, improbable but inevitable, that are the proper province and achievement of well-crafted fiction. The editors have done an admirable job of delivering such moments in such an engaging variety of packages.

Tony Crunk lives and writes in Birmingham.