Collected Stories by Wallace Stegner (2006. Penguin Classics. 978-0-14-303979-2)

As I am typing this, I am finishing up Steven King’s writing memoir/tutorial On Writing. Like all good writers (I’ll confess, I am taking the word of others on this as I’ve never successfully completed a King novel), King admonishes folks who have the “writing bug” to “read, read, and read”. And he is particular in his declaration: read the classic as well as the contemporary. Why? Reading the giants of literature, alongside today’s gifted storytellers, gives a wanna-be writer a clear understanding of craft. King doesn’t mention Wallace Stegner by name in his book or in the book’s bibliography but he should have.

Here, Penguin gives us true genius in the short and not-so-short story form. I’ll admit I am a Stegner fan, having fallen in love with his prose after reading Angel of Repose, Beyond the 100th Meridian, and other longer works. I was searching for a western author to read while visiting Books on Broadway in Williston, ND and this collection caught my eye. It took me months to get to it, methodically working down my stack of “books to be read” in OCD fashion, but in the end, I started reading Stegner’s shorter work and of course, could not put it down. Like seeing my wife dolled up for an evening out, I fell in love with Wallace all over again.

Stegner’s stories are not linked in the manner of many modern collections. Oh, there are two or three stories that share characters and settings; continuing a previous piece in the book in some fashion, digging deeper into familiar literary soil. But by and large, the snippets of fiction that make up this catalog of a great writer’s “lesser” (in terms of length only) work are stand-alone pieces, something abhorrent to today’s publishers. I’ve written a similar collection, without the skill and polish evidenced in Stegner’s Collected Works; short tales that are intended to be read one at a time, like grapes sucked off the vine. And it’s pretty clear from studying today’s marketplace that both Stegner’s short story collection and my own would not find a home with a traditional publisher in our contemporary world. Publishers want collections that connect and continue themes, characters, and place. Here, Stegner ranges from the Canadian Plains, to the Midwest, to California, writing in styles as varied as Annie Proulx and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Though known primarily as a “Western” writer, two of my favorite pieces in the book are “party scenes”: one set on the campus of an unnamed Indiana college (“The View from the Balcony”), the other, “A Field Guide to Western Birds”, set in the hills above LA. This last exists admirably as a time capsule of a certain age and class of people in a manner very akin to Fitzgerald:

“Maybe it’s something you did for ten percent,” she whispers, and that tickles me. I was the poor one when we were married. Her father’s money kept us going for the first five or six years. She laughs and rubs her cheek against mine and her cheek is soft and smells of powder. For the merest instant it feels old, too soft, limp, and used and without tension and resilience, and I think what it means to be all through. But Ruth is looking across the violet valleys and the sunstruck ridges, and she says is her whispery voice,” Isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it really perfectly beautiful?”

For those readers who cherish Stegner’s writings about the Plains and the mountain country of the American and Canadian West, there is “Genius” a novella length depiction of a doomed cattle drive in Saskatchewan, with elements of place, style, and dialog that will make McMurtry lovers swoon.

All in all, a fine reflection of genius.

5 stars out of 5.




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