By Landry Harlan
Few writers can generate as much tension in so few pages as Pamela Painter.
Fabrications: new and selected stories by Pamela Painter. Johns Hopkins University Press, 328 pages, $21.95.
Buy at Bookshop
Eddie, a movie trailer editor, has a dud on his hands. His boss says he needs to work around it, so he starts looking for “sex; action…bodies and blood” to liven it up. With some creative cutting and splicing of scenes, he thinks he has a “winner” with a “new story” that almost cons him into thinking the movie is worth watching. But, as he notes before heading to a bar to “exaggerate, lie, edit” some more, “who says the story you tell has to be the story that happened?”
The casual fibs and more elaborate falsehoods that drive the stories we tell each other are a recurring theme in writer and Emerson professor Pamela Painter’s latest short story collection, Fabrications, a compilation of select tales spanning 45 years of writing alongside seven new “micro-observations,” several set in the Boston area. Emphasis on “micro.” The longest story spans a mere 17 pages. The shortest? Only three. Yet, this retrospective of sorts proves that length really doesn’t matter. Just don’t call it “flash” fiction. These piercing tales of human fallibilities and foibles linger longer than that.
Where Painter has always excelled is in stripping out the fluff of extraneous description and dialogue that can slow a story’s momentum. She doesn’t waste time getting the narrative wheels turning. That may be why she often plunks her characters behind the wheel, attempting to escape the chaos they glimpse in their rear view mirrors. The catch is that their destinations tend to end up disappointing them. In the opening story, “Her Elvis Presley Wedding,” two teen friends steal the family car to fulfill a young woman’s romantic notions of getting married at Graceland Chapel, only to discover years later how little they understood about why. A perennially cheating husband leads a woman to decamp to her family’s Lake Erie cottage and indulge in a tryst herself, only to encounter heartbreak in “The Second Night of a One-Night Stand.”
In these two tales, as well as most of the 31 stories in the collection, much of the tension derives from hidden intentions. Painter prefers writing in the first person; it is a powerfully dramatic way to learn that the dark predilections and casual deceptions of these narrators aren’t as inconspicuous as they may think. A house of cards collapses memorably in two stories from the collection written decades apart, “Brochures” and “Intruders of Sleepless Nights.” In both, the characters are moving through the motions of marriage, but the romantic spark has vanished. A recently retired man in “Brochures” takes his wife to a B&B by the sea and holds secret (and self-conceited) competitions — like who can sit-up the fastest — to amuse and arouse himself. He thinks his wife isn’t aware of these games, only to realize on a climactic cliff walk just how wrong he was. Two spouses think they’ve tricked the other into believing they’re asleep in the perspective-shifting “Intruders.” The husband “dislikes being able to fool her so easily,” varying his breath in what he also considers a “game,” “just to feel her freeze.” It turns out she’s staying perfectly still because she senses a divorce is coming and feels “more aware of herself at these times than any other.” A burglar realizes, once he enters the bedroom, that both of them are faking slumber, though neither cries out for help. Instead, one makes a much more shocking request.
Though Fabrications contains many more hits than misses, it is ironic that, for a short-story collection written by someone who understands “less is more,” the volume is far too long and grows repetitive at times. The effect is that of an overstuffed double-album or a Netflix series: filler diminishes the overall quality, elbowing aside the standouts. Some are a bit too explanatory, like “Off-Stage” in which a drama teacher explains how “a character’s entrance on to the stage is really an exit from somewhere that matters to their individual story.” Others start with an intriguing idea but end up as thought experiments without emotional payoff, such as “The Story,” where a family of writers takes ‘write what you know’ to an extreme. And there are whiffs of predictability via a repetition of similar settings and characters; for example, both “A Fabricated Life” and “Something to Do” revolve around pathological liars. I suppose this should be expected of a collection spanning such a long career, but a slimmed-down version of this volume, one that cuts out some of the “duds,” would be most welcome.
That said, too much is much preferable to too little and Fabrications proves that Painter’s storied short-story career is far from over. In fact, several of the newer stories are the best of the bunch. Few writers can generate as much tension in so few pages as Painter; she adds a brisk macabre twist to a scenic road trip in “Hitchhikers,” and revs-up the escalating abductions of a young girl by two feuding parents in “The Kidnappers.” Painter’s art lies in how she so efficiently dramatizes how foolishly we “exaggerate, lie, edit.”
Landry Harlan is a writer based in Cambridge. He has written no books, but will happily and honestly tell you what he thinks about yours.