- Paperback: 192 pages
- Publisher: Autumn House Press; 1 edition (January 1, 2013)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1932870652
- ISBN-13: 978-1932870657
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 17 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,704,068 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Little Raw Souls Paperback – January 1, 2013
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*Starred Review* Schwartz appreciates that a compelling plotline can contribute intensity to the brief life of a short story. All of these 11 stories arrest the reader from their opening paragraphs; their fully engaging plots include a western farmer allowing a hippie-dippie couple the temporary use of a cabin on his property but finding peace and love quickly turning to violence; a young person’s crush on a cousin turns very provocative when the cousin, years later, shows up for a reunion no longer her original gender; a high-school teacher holds a gun to his head in front of his class with the full intention of using it; and a married man faces, under stressful circumstances, his own competitiveness with both his former girlfriend and his wife. But Schwartz is careful to use his strong, even page-turning plots to service the short story form’s primary responsibility: to capture a character’s most salient traits. His easy, unpretentious writing style not only adds to the stories’ accessibility and resonance but also supplies the solid amalgam between plot and character, resulting in a collection to be held up as evidence that the short story not only endures but also flourishes. --Brad Hooper
How vividly Steven Schwartz describes his characters and how cunningly he wields the knife edge of suspense. I loved entering each of the worlds he creates--a grandfather fighting for his grandchildren, a man misled by a hippie couple, a woman who falls asleep at the airport, a teacher who holds his class hostage--and I hated to leave. --Margot Livesey
I love Steven Schwartz's characters for the way that, even as they work with such patience and fortitude in the face of radically diminished expectations, at holding up their end, as they understand it--or holding up more than their end--they feel so piercingly the full extent of their failures. Little Raw Souls is one of the most openhearted and emotionally intelligent story collections I've ever read. --Jim Shepard
Steven Schwartz is a capacious writer; bucking the trend, a lot happens in these stories. He takes the time and has the skill and graciousness to give each of his stories a full world in which men and women wrestle with their conflicting codes, reaching for the right thing among all of the easy and delectable choices. --Ron Carlson
Little Raw Souls is a beautiful book--I loved watching these characters bumble and brave their way through compromise, integrity, and freedom from illusion. What inventive and truthful stories these are. --Joan Silber
"The stories in LITTLE RAW SOULS represent a triumphant second act in the life of American writer Steven Schwartz." --TheRumpus.net
“Set in a variety of landscapes across the southwest, from northern Colorado to Tucson, Santa Fe to Sedona, each of these stories is a gem. They give life to souls who might be cynical but still hope for meaning, souls scraped raw with living. They are anything but little.” —Arizona Public Radio
“A strong pick for any modern short fiction collection.” —Midwest Book Review
“Expertly rendered stories” —ForeWord
"Schwartz is a master craftsman. His ear for dialogue is terrific. His characters are wonderfully complicated. His ability to create dramatic tension is masterful. Each story is a blazing forge.” —Billings Gazette
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That about sums it up though once you begin each story, the stakes are real. Size doesn’t matter.
A 68-year-old divorced man named Charlie extends a helping hand to a “migratory” couple expecting a child in "Bless Everybody." He lives on 200 acres along the Colorado-Wyoming border. Charlie has a strained relationship with his ex-wife and the story is laced with a low-grade tension between the two of them. Perhaps the drifters are giving Charlie a chance to shine. The drifters drive a Volkswagen bus with bald tires and "its grill had picked up a couple of tumbleweeds and was chewing on them like too much spaghetti in a child’s mouth.” But then the husband of the questionable couple wounds a deer—with a pistol—out of season. The mounting dread is palpable. The story neatly builds layers of ethical questions and basic human desires.
In “Stranger,” Elaine is flying back to Denver after helping her sister deal with her father’s estate in Philadelphia. But her flight is delayed and she’s stuck at the airport. And someone clips her wallet while she naps and she lurches into a world of uncertainty. She is “in a state,” as her husband Richard, back home in Denver, likes to say. She’s also in world of opportunity, given everything, and peers hard around the corner at another self, where “the idea of limits had become just that, an idea.”
“Seeing Miles” is the story of a Denver psychologist named David who is about to get reacquainted with a second cousin, Mimi. He knew Mimi as a teenager and was smitten with her “regal aloofness” and the “long white curve” of her throat. But not Mimi is a he—Miles. And he works hard to see the old Mimi and the new Miles, just as he works hard to figure out the rules about being around—acting normally—around his transgendered relative. “He’d been riveted by Mimi, by her elusive sylph beauty, her slender jaw and sinuous lips that reminded him of graceful Arabic script. He could still see a delicate handsomeness in the man now.” Dredging up the teenage memories, and chatting with the Miles, carries implication for the home life. David is “keen on others’ wounds” and drawn to loneliness—yet he and his Rose (a great choice of names) are trying for another child. The emotions are deftly layered.
In my mind, every single writer on the planet would dig the multi-layered “Galisteo Street” and its themes of rejection and loss. Ben is a writer but hasn’t published anything in a decade. “The gap between success and being forgotten had widened with thoroughbred speed and people had stopped asking about a new book.” He teaches writing now (part-time) and considers it “transitional retirement.” He reads, chops woods, takes yoga, tends tomatoes. Years ago, he’d fathered a child and gave her up for adoption. He didn’t meet the child, Lydia, until she was eleven. The mother of Lydia is Marilyn and she’s the daughter of an unnamed literary star. And here’s where it gets complicated. The last book Ben published was memoir of his time with the troubled Marilyn and it drew lousy reviews. Of course, it outsold his fiction due to its “prurient interest” but what matters is the reaction has caused a serious disruption in his productivity. Now, as the story starts, Ben hears that Lydia, the daughter he abandoned, has had a baby. Ben and his wife Sunny drive to Santa Fe to close circles. Or something. To clean the slate? To look for forgiveness? He needs to get unblocked so he can start writing again. It’s all neatly interwoven, the artist and his actions, the teacher and his lessons—both the ones he preaches and the ones he chooses to ignore.
The three stories that wrap up the collection—“Opposite Ends of the World,” “Blockage” and “The Theory of Everything”—are dynamite. Again, writers will relate to the hunger and frustration of the set-up in “Blockage,” in which our erstwhile novelist has chucked his fiction dreams and is now a dental supply salesman. (Now, that's just sad.) .
Schwartz knows the heart of a frustrated writer and there is, in fact, no reason that these stories aren’t in regular rotation on the reading lists of those who enjoy Alice Munro or, say, Ron Carlson. I bought a copy of this book because it won the Colorado Book Award this year (2014); an award well deserved.
Every story feels fresh—and alive. They are efficient and energetic. The writing is beautiful. The style is understated with a sparkle of poetry here and there—flashes that reveal restraint. Prose takes a backseat to the humanity, the individual and their “uncelebrated troubles.”
He really is a masterful writer. Many better known writers are famous for their talent with a particular facet of writing, such as dialogue or description. But it's rare to find a writer who excels at every aspect of writing. While I get totally immersed in his stories, there are times when you just have to stop amd marvel at how good he is at everything - description, dialogue, metaphors, character development and plotting. His premises are also always bold and fascinating. Just two examples -- a man reunites with the cousin he had a crush on as a teenager after she's had a sex-change operation ("Seeing Miles"); a teacher pulls out a gun in front of his class and points it at his head ("Indie").
To play the simple game of finding one word that characterizes Schwartz's writing, it's dignity - all the characters in these pieces have it, even when they are behaving badly. Schwartz is an author who makes you respect and have total compassion for his characters, even as he's revealing all of their warts.
The 11 stories in the collection are:
1. Bless Everybody - 21 pp -- A powerful and dramatic story about a retiree living on a large piece of property on the Colorado/Wyoming border. He's leading a quiet life, still pining for his ex-wife, when he lets a hippie-ish young couple expecting a baby stay in a cabin on his land. Trouble ensues after the young man kills a deer out of season, presumably to feed his family.
2. Stranger - 17 pp - A wife and mother is waiting in the Philadelphia airport for a flight home to Denver, after her father died. A man steals her wallet when she is napping, and then she meets a kind man in a bar and has to decide whether to take advantage of the in-between state her life has fallen into.
3. Absolute Zero - 21 pp - A moving story about a 17-year-old who wants to join the Marines but needs the permission of his mother, who is vehemently opposed to wars. He befriends the sergeant who is trying to recruit him, but a failed encounter with the sergeant's disturbed daughter has major consequences.
4. Seeing Miles - 14 pp - A great, great story about a man who reunites with his cousin, whom he hasn't seen in 25 years since his Bar Mitzvah 25 years earlier. That occasion was the first time he'd met her, and he'd developed an instant crush. When they reunite, his cousin has had a sex change. Interacting with the man who was once the girl he lusted after sets off a whirl of confusing emotions. Told with remarkable poignancy and dignity.
5. Galisteo Street - 22 pp - A story that blew me away when I first read it in Prairie Schooner, and it had the same effect when I read it for the second time in this collection. It's about a man who tries to reconnect with the daughter he and his girlfriend at the time gave up for adoption. He was young then and didn't want to be encumbered with a child, so he could pursue his ambitions of becoming a writer. Now, 30 years later, after a few unsuccessful books, his writing has dried up. Even though he got married and had children of his own, who are now happy and successful, he can't let go of the desire to reconnect with his first child, who lived a perfectly content life without him. It's a heart-wrenching story that also offers some eye-opening details of the ego-smashing hardships writers who aren't on the bestseller lists contend with.
6. Indie - 17 pp - A tour de force that examines a tragedy but still manages to find a few lighthearted, comic moments along the way. A history teacher who is a Civil War re-enactor pulls out a Civil War-era pistol and points it at his head in front of his class. Told from the multiple perspectives of the teacher and the students, who sit in shocked terror and confusion over what he's going to do. It's a brilliant look at all the profound and prosaic thoughts that play across the minds of the people in that room.
7. Natural Causes - 22 pp - A retired geology professor's wife dies in a car accident just when she was about to leave him. He starts another relationship with another professor several decades younger than he. She is the opposite of his wife in every way - tall and boisterous while his wife was petite and demur. His conflict is that he can't see himself with her, even though he is starting to fall in love with her. The younger woman, Penny, is a marvelous character. Her goofiness and over-eagerness make you understand why this reserved man might find her at-times off-putting, but she has so much zealous energy, you can't help but root for her.
8. The Last Communist - 22 pp - An almost mini-novel-like story about a young man who is the son of Russian Jews who works during the summer of 1970 in a Jewish resort. But this is far from "Dirty Dancing," all the Jews at this resort are communists, who still don't want to believe Stalin was all bad, and they engage as often as they can in peaceful demonstrations against the dangers of capitalism. The young man befriends another boy who has a low-draft number and a dark secret - he took part in the part in the burning of a ROTC building on his college campus. There's a lot going on this story - including the main characters' crush on his friend's younger sister - and it's all brilliantly told.
9. Opposite Ends of the World - 18 pp - A man with multiple sclerosis has to resign from his job as a music teacher and deal with the predicaments of his new life - his unpredictable pains, a wife not willing to give up on her hopes of having children even with the demands the MS imposes on their lives, and finally a neighbor who keeps anonymously complaining about their barking dogs. It's a powerful piece about a man having to cope with his own gradual and inevitable decline.
10. Blockage - 20 pp - A failed writer, who is now a dental supplies salesman, takes his wife, who is recovering from sinus surgery to a resort in Arizona. The goal is to celebrate their anniversary, but the resort happens to be near the home of the writer's ex-girlfriend who became a literary sensation with her first novel. The experience becomes a trial for the man, as he's stuck between jealousy over his pretentious ex-girlfriend's extravagant success and his sense of obligation to his wife, with whom he's leading a happily ordinary life. His wife, a writer as well, has her own secret as she's also navigating the space between an ordinary life and aspirations for something bigger.
11. The Theory of Everything - 22 pp - The final story in this marvelous collection packs a wallop. It's about an 82-year-old man, who, along with his wife, has to take care of his depressed son's children, after the son's junkie wife walks out on them. The grandparents make a normal life for the kids, but then after four years away, the wife returns with the promise that she is clean and sober. The grandfather has to face the possibility of losing the children to a son he knows isn't stable and a woman he's still justifiably suspicious of.
LITTLE RAW SOULS has eleven stories. Honestly, if a collection has three stories that I like, then I think it's a good collection. In this book, eight of them pretty much knocked my socks off. Here's what Schwartz does better than almost anyone I know: he takes improbable scenes and makes them believable. He also makes you squirm with discomfort, and sometimes the poignance is almost unbearable. He also has a fluidity with metaphor and simile that just dazzle. (One old guy's back pain, after he took some Vicodin, scattered off like a gang of thugs, or something like that.) And despite the emotions, he somehow manages always to escape sentimentality. Mind you, I'm a fan of sentimentality (see: Dickens, Charles), but Schwartz never lapses into it. Not much else to say. Just a hell of a story writer.