fall, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, the group
that hands out the Nobel Prize in Literature, disparaged American
letters, saying our fiction was too isolated, too insular
and too sensitive to trends in our own mass culture
(in short, too American) to matter much to the wider world. But
its the very Americanness of our literature the hybrid
nature of our national makeup, the variety and breadth of our landscape,
our mania for self-invention and reinvention that captured
the international imagination at a time when most readers could
never visit the country they dreamed about. It still does today.
needs no apology; its the strength of our letters. And few
of our contemporary writers exemplify its adaptive vitality better
than Louise Erdrich, herself descended from the first Americans
(her mother was part Chippewa, part French, and her grandmother
was a tribal chairwoman) and from German immigrants. The author
of some two dozen books for adults and children, Erdrich is also
a wondrous short story writer. In The Red Convertible,
she gathers 36 stories, 26 previously published, together creating
a keepsake of the American experience. Like the painted drum in
her story of that name, this collection can be considered a
living thing, an emblem of the universe exquisitely
sensitive for so powerful an instrument.
a short story is to succeed, it must suggest what a work of greater
heft would make explicit. In Erdrichs story Scales,
which appeared in The North American Review and The Best American
Short Stories 1983 and was later folded into the novel Love
Medicine, she describes the fierce bond between Dot Adare,
a sturdy, irascible woman who weighs trucks for the North Dakota
Highway Department, and her rascally husband, Gerry Nanapush. In
the weigh shack, the pregnant Dot knits clothes for her baby, pulling
each stitch so tightly that the little garments she finished stood
up by themselves like miniature suits of mail. Just in time
for the birth, Gerry springs himself from jail, riding to the hospital
on a huge and ancient, rust-pocked motorcycle. A few
weeks later, when shes back in the weigh shack and Gerrys
back in jail, Dot impulsively weighs the child on the truck scale.
He was so dense with life, such a powerful distillation of
Dot and Gerry, it seemed he might weigh about as much as any load,
Erdrich writes. But that was only a thought, of course. For
as it turned out, he was too light and did not register at all.
In the scales, perhaps he didnt; but on the page his weight
is solid, both with past accumulation and latent future.
the preface to this collection, Erdrich explains that every time
she finishes writing a short story, she considers it done, complete.
There is no more, she thinks. And yet, she adds, the
stories are rarely finished with me. They gather force and weight
and complexity. Set whirling, they exert some centrifugal influence.
Together, they move.
of Erdrich may think of her as a chronicler of Native American ways,
and this she certainly is, but her mine taps other veins as well.
Many sorts of Americans appear among her characters: a reclusive
New Hampshire sculptor; a small-minded German sister-in-law; a trapeze
artist who saves her daughter from a burning house; a play-acting
bank robber; a Eurasian doctor who lures a college girl by promising
to cook her an omelet. Some readers may think of Erdrich as a teller
of folk tales and parables, which she also is, although much of
her writing lies outside that category. Still others may regard
her as a master tuner of the taut emotions that keen between parent
and child, man and woman, brother and sister, man and beast, and
she is that as well. She can also be very, very funny.
one of her new stories, The Gravitron, an incident occurs
that made me laugh aloud, on and off, for 20 minutes. (I wont
deprive you of the surprise of it.) In another new offering, Anna,
a secret subtext exhilarates a curiously unsensationalized ménage-à-trois.
Elsewhere, stories are lightened by the humor of day-to-day scrapes
and dodges. In Shamengwa, a no-good teenager who has
stolen an old mans violin ends up in a Fargo shopping mall,
playing frenzied air-fiddle to earn change from passersby. In The
Bingo Van, an insolent gas station clerk offers a bag of Day-Glo
party balloons to a customer who wants to buy condoms. Even a wrenching
story like The Butchers Wife has room for scenes
of whimsy when a grown man, horsing around with his friends,
performs an absurd feat of strength, lifting an obese friend off
a table by the belt using only his teeth. But he doesnt do
it for laughs; he does it to distract his sick wife, who watches
from an upstairs window.
great delicacy, Erdrich handles the emotions of indelicate people,
as theyre tripped up by the uneven terrain of their lives.
Fittingly, she finds a metaphor for the human condition in a Northeastern
forest: In the woods, there is no right way to go, of course,
no trail to follow but the law of growth. You must leave behind
the notion that things are right. Just look around you. Here is
the way things are. Twisted, fallen, split at the root. What grows
best does so at the expense of whats beneath.
almost 500 pages of short stories can tax your patience or set your
mind wandering, but not with this writer. Erdrichs characters
and situations reappear from one story to another, linking generation
to generation, past to present, hyphenated-American to hyphenated-American
in a multitude of shifting moods.
these moods, these voices, spark feelings of recognition in non-Americans?
If not, that may be less the fault of the author than a symptom
of changes both beyond and within our countrys borders. Consider
the barrage of movies and news, Internet and travel options
images and innovations that simultaneously satisfy and dull ones
curiosity, replacing reflection and reverie with quick sensation.
If contemporary audiences prefer to watch The Last of the
Mohicans rather than to read it, is Fenimore Cooper diminished?
If foreign readers find no affinity with Updike, Roth or Oates,
does that mean our men and women of letters have lost their art?
And, by the same token, if American readers would rather watch cable
television to get their Tolstoy and Austen, and choose to skip The
Magic Mountain, The Brothers Karamazov, Elfriede
Jelinek and Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, is Europe to blame?
Or is the capacity for the quiet use of leisure, something essential
to reading, on the wane? Isolation and insularity can afflict any
land. One of the best cures is to read the finest literature from
as many places as possible. Louise Erdrich might call it life
Selected and New Stories 1978-2008
By Louise Erdrich
496 pp. HarperCollins Publishers. $27.99
Schillinger is a regular contributor to the New York Times Book