Book Review: Michael Glenn’s “Selected Stories” — Indelibly Messy Slices of Life

By Ed Meek

In his short stories, Michael Glenn has a physician’s eye for detail and a psychologist’s insight into the way we think and what motivates us.

Selected Stories by Michael Glenn. Gray Dove Press, 284 pages, $18.99.

Selected Stories by Michael Glenn includes tales by the author from the past 50 years. Glenn is a retired physician. Like William Carlos Williams, he somehow found time to write. Glenn is the author of a number of books about therapy and an earlier collection called Trouble on the Hill and Other Stories. He has a physician’s eye for detail and a psychologist’s insight into the way we think and what motivates us. His stories, like those of Raymond Carver and many writers who have followed his lead, are about ordinary people: young kids, a married couple on vacation, a doctor and a patient he becomes attached to. Like many contemporary narratives, they often pull us up short because they lack tidy endings. Rather, they function as slices of life or photo albums that often leave us wanting more, but what we’re given is well worth reading and thinking about. They are also often disturbing. We can see where these characters are headed and we want to warn them or rescue them. At the same time, his stories are entirely credible. Not an easy feat in fiction.

The most satisfying story is “Piano Lesson,” about a young boy who takes piano lessons over a period of eight years from a teacher he looks up to as sophisticated and talented. Until one day the boy glimpses an unsettling conflict that is central to his teacher’s marriage. In this case, the narrator turns an emotional corner: “I’ve never been quite the same. Ever watchful, I move through the world on tiptoe, appreciating the music, but wary of the musicians.” There’s a theme we can all identify with in our turbulent era.

“Making Friends,” written in 1979, tells the story of a single mom and her son who escape an abusive guy and move to a poor section of a city in the middle of the school year. The boy, 12 years old, tries to fit in with a tough crowd of kids separated into groups of whites, Blacks, and Puerto Ricans. He’s confronted with a tough choice: to side with the mean kids with whom he makes friends, or to go against the grain and suffer the consequences. He finds himself fighting his way out of and into trouble. The problems he and his siblings face are mirrored in his mother’s relationships.

In a prescient story called “The Seventies,” written in 1986, Glenn portrays a young woman who moves in with a couple who have an open relationship. Like my psychologist friend (who works for Google), the narrator soon finds that open relationships are not nearly as open as they claim to be — and that they end up being opportunities for jealousy, one-upmanship, and secrets. In this and a number of other stories in the collection, readers may find they want the tale to be longer and to reach some sort of firm resolution.

In a very funny, though not-so-credible story, a successful doctor runs into his stern second grade teacher on the street. She begins to berate him for all the flaws he exhibited in her class. “It seems you always fell a little short,” she said. Things have been going well for me, he says. “No matter what you do … your soul will be as drab and grey as my hair,” she responds. It’s like running into the smartest girl in your high school class who says, “Oh, I remember, you never were that bright.”

An early yarn, “Jackie,” is particularly effective in its insightful portrayal of the relationship of a doctor with a patient who has cystic fibrosis. Because she has had the disease since she was five, the patient has been in and out of hospitals, sickly her entire life. She is a young adult who has no friends and has never been in love. The doctor finds himself drawn to her and that causes problems in his marriage. He is forced to make a decision about what matters more to him — the results are painful for the doctor and the reader.

Michael Glenn has what Raymond Carver called “a unique and exact way of looking at things.” For that reason alone, he is well worth reading. Those who turn to fiction for insights into the human condition — as well as those who are interested in the development of the short story — should pick up a copy of Glenn’s fine collection.

Ed Meek is the author of High Tide (poems) and Luck (short stories).

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