Those old enough to remember the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 will recall the iconic image of that disaster: A misdirected auto dashing along the Bay Bridge, then poof, it’s gone, nose-diving through an unforeseen fissure. Rewind the tape. Watch it over and over. You scream at the car through the television. You wave your arms. But there’s no stopping it, and no looking away.
That’s what it feels like reading Steven Schwartz’s new collection of short stories, Little Raw Souls (Autumn House Press), 11 tales of peril, redemption and disaster.
Despite their brevity—the stories come to about 20 pages a piece—they read like mini-novels. Schwartz creates fully rounded characters complete with back story, emotional depth and the capacity for change. This is not a book to be rushed or read in large chunks. Think sushi, not M&Ms.
The collection opens with the sensational “Bless Everybody,” which appeared in Ploughshares in 2008 and won the journal’s Cohen Award for best short story. Here, Charlie is a retired divorcé. He owns a plot of land near the Colorado-Wyoming border, and one day a hippie couple shows up on the property, the woman ready-to-drop pregnant. The travelers say they’ve been called to the land and would like to stay a while. Charlie grants them permission, and the woman says, “Your hospitality will not go unnoticed.”
It may as well have been an ancient Chinese curse.
Something you should know about Charlie: He made his living as a highway inspector. He is a man of precision, routine, structure. “I’d had a perfect record over the years of inspecting roads,” Charlie says, adding that he never took a bribe “to look the other way” when a job was subpar. The arrival of the young, “migratory” couple is a disruption in multiple ways, both of his time and routine and of his lifestyle, as he is not one to have ever lived in a van—especially with a pregnant wife.
But this is not necessarily a generational clash, or even a cultural one. If anything, the arrival of the hippies underscores Charlie’s splintered relationship with his ex-wife, best described in a moment when he is at their former house and notices that their old photos have been replaced with artwork. “She’d fixed up the place with abstract paintings that reminded me of geometry problems…”
Charlie is a man who favors the familiar, the comfortable, for better or worse. He prefers his life to be as straight and smooth as the highways he once inspected. His wife has moved on to a life he finds complicated and problematic. He feels like a stranger on his own land with the hippie couple occupying it.
Here’s where Schwarz is at his best.
“I don’t think a story comes alive for me unless I find those incongruent moments, and oftentimes it is some sort of violation of something that’s just taken for granted somehow,” he says.
Violation is a fitting term. In each of these stories, he drops us into an uncomfortable, yet familiar setting, where a character suffers displacement or maybe disorientation. And then, like that car speeding along the Bay Bridge, poof, the bottom falls out. “Of course, as a writer you’re always looking for the darker complications and the complexity of human behavior and motivation,” Schwartz says.
In the aftermath, the characters must adapt to this new reality. This is the payoff. It’s what comes after the disruption that matters. We engage with characters in peril, watch as their world is violated and then see how they respond.
Violation, or exposure, is present in all these tales. But what is so striking is that the disruptions come about through seemingly mundane events—a stolen wallet, an illicit kiss, a revelation from a long-ago crush. I refer to it as micro-scale calamity. These are the minor tragedies that upend the characters in unexpected ways, or what Bukowski would call the “shoelace that snaps with no time left.”
In “Stranger,” a woman is robbed in an airport, but it’s not the missing wallet that troubles her. In “Seeing Miles,” a middle-aged man meets up with a childhood crush who has had sex reassignment surgery. In the story “Indie,” a teacher begins class by holding a gun to his head. Yet even here, Schwartz is able to subdue this dramatic event so that the action occurs within and between the characters rather than all attention focusing on the gun.
“It’s this mixture of the most mundane with this profound movement of somebody with a gun to his head,” Schwartz says. “I’m always interested in those weird juxtapositions that you put together in a story where something seems innocent, but you have a horrific moment right next to it.”
Perhaps part of his ability to create these compelling, gut-wrenching personalities and situations comes from his training as a psychologist (he earned his B.A. in psychology at the University of Colorado). And his writing talent is no surprise. He is currently a professor of English at Colorado State University and is the fiction editor of the Colorado Review.
Full disclosure: I was a student of Schwartz at CSU, and he was a member of my MFA defense committee. One of the most valuable courses I took was his voice class, the lessons of which are illuminated in this collection. Little Raw Souls went on sale in January, and it is available in bookstores and through Autumn House Press. You can learn more about the author at Steven Schwartz Books. In January, Transgress Magazine sat down with Schwartz to discuss Little Raw Souls. You may listen to the complete audio interview below, or, if more convenient, we’ve also divvied it up into chapters.
Give it a listen… then give it a read.
Or listen to smaller audio chunks:
Part 1: “I think the material is really what determines everything.”
Part 2: “At some point it seemed like I was writing about people who are struggling with moral issues and trying to define a sense of what good they do in the world…”
Part 3: “I don’t think I was really ready to publish this collection… until I had the title.”
Part 4: “Of course, as a writer you’re always looking for the darker complications and the complexity of human behavior and motivation.”
Part 5: “As you get older, you’re terribly afraid of change because of what it might take from you. But at the same time, you can’t stop…”
Part 6: “You want to do the unpredictable, but you don’t want to necessarily do the unbelievable…”
Part 7: “I was looking through some old files and I came across this manuscript, and I thought, ‘You know, this isn’t bad. Who wrote this?’ It had been so long, I’d forgotten I’d written it.”
Part 8: “I’m always interested in those weird juxtapositions that you put together in a story where something seems innocent, but you have a horrific moment right next to it.”
Part 9: “After a while, you start to wonder yourself, what did you make up and what is really true?”
Part 10: “I used to think that all I wanted to do was be a full-time writer, and I actually tried that for a while. It’s not what it’s cracked up to be.”
Part 11: “I was much more interested in the properties of imagination and the effect of language…”
Part 12: “I think so much of creating is a process of creating and destruction. You write something, then you tear it up, go through another revision, you eliminate it somehow and then you begin all over again. And you just have to allow time for that process of transformation to take place.”
Part 13: “I’ve never had such a personal experience working with a publisher.”