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The Moon-Haunted Heart (50 Short Stories) Paperback – January 15, 2016
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This book is not quite “erotica,” the stuff of fantasy, designed to serve the purpose of arousal and perhaps release. But Shaw realizes that sexuality and eroticism do lie at the core of human existence, and unlike so much literary fiction today he is willing to confront that fact head on. There is much reflection on sex, but usually as remembered as part of a larger or intense past experience – moments of triumph, moments of failure, of embarrassment. It is the near-misses, the opportunities squandered, the bad choices that define the arcs of these stories and the characters within.
Some of the stories approach erotica, and are quite arousing. But few – perhaps none – aim for arousal as an end in itself. There are tales of failed affairs, homosexual curiosity and experimentation, unfulfilled fantasies. A trilogy of stories documenting an extra-marital affair and its generational consequences is especially well done. An appeal to an observed fantasy woman to just go ahead and skip every cliché from romantic comedy movies and get straight to the breakup. A meditation on the problematics of ogling and desiring attractive but untouchable Mennonite girls. A barely-legal “curvy girl” is the wager in a poker game in a dismal bar on the Mississippi River, yet she doesn’t mind, for the right reasons. “Nox” is more poetic soliloquy than proper “story”, a detailed sensory description of what it feels, smells, and sounds like to be lying on a bed of grass after great sex on a summer night. The very next story, “A Sense of History,” begins with the lines “ ‘You know, Ben, this is very probably the bed you were conceived on.’ Dad and I were manhandling the old mattress to an alley-side dumpster behind my apartment house.” – a wonderful transition.
There is an undeniably Mid-Western feel to these stories, and most of them do take place there. What I like most about this book is that the stories *accrue* — there is a feeling, as one progresses through the book, of a complete and self-contained world and worldview being built one narrative brick at a time.
There are a few stories that did disrupt that continuity for me, that social-sexual palimpsest that otherwise feels so coherent. Two horror stories – one of which, “La Sonnambula”, is actually a wonderful story – feel out of place, the supernatural invading what is otherwise a realistic world-building and viewpoint.
One of the most powerful stories is “Where Nobody’s Dreams Come True,” a tale set in a dank corner of the glum world of the California porn industry. In this story Zak, an editor of cheap porn films, meets Bo, a cute young actress who shows up to make what turns out to be a particularly exploitive film. The twist is that Zak is nearly blind, and Bo is deaf. Cute? The stuff of slapstick? No. Studio staff and talent are forbidden to have contact, but a spark develops between them, a mutual understanding of their respective, added challenges in life. But both Zak and Bo refuse to let their physical limitations *define* them – a key theme in several stories in this collection; the author is seeing-impaired. This is a story of human dignity, not one of coping with disability. Indeed, their “disabilities” are almost incidental to the story – almost. There is hope for these two likable people, of finding some comfort in an environment flush with sex but short on intimacy and kindness and even decency. But will these hopes be fulfilled?
Sex is always present, in mind if not body; has always been and will always be. These are stories of pondering, wondering, desiring and regretting – yet always hoping.
In addition to short stories running the gamut from philosophical to lusty, this book brims with jeweled vignettes, with pivotal moments in character’s lives, with surprises, with the prose equivalent of haiku. And the occasional awe-inspiring essay. My favorite, “The Purview of Small Minds,” deconstructs the phonetics of a certain four-letter word in a brilliant display of fricative, schwa, and metaphor – this one is anything but an anticlimax, Mr. Shaw.
Don’t miss the “Notes on the Stories” section. It’s a fascinating window of insight into the mind of the writer. Beautifully crafted writing, thought-provoking commentary, and you’ll learn a few wonderful words in French, Spanish, Italian, and Yiddish.
Exotic, nuanced, and delicious, The Moon-Haunted Heart is an 85% cacao treat for any lover of the English language.