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Kiese Laymon, “And So On” (McSweeney’s 49)

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Kiese Laymon’s “And So On” is one of McSweeney’s 49’s cover stories, modeled after Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.”
The story is structured around a wonderful, oblique, direct, cutting dialogue between Chanda Stewart and the narrator, two African American professors in a predominantly white college in Middletown, Massachusetts. They are roommates and have had sex once.
Chanda is a great character, forceful, blunt, loving, determined. She has been dating Doug E. Brovani, a 23-year-old juvenile delinquent who posts videos of himself having sex with white women. The narrator hates her for falling for Doug.

Lauren Groff, “Once” (McSweeney’s 49)

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--> Lauren Groff’s “Once” is a tiny story from McSweeney’s 49. Following the theme of this number of McSweeney’s, it is modelled after Grace Paley’s “Wants.” The very title of Groff’s piece, “Once,” echoes Paley’s original title, with a suggestive respelling.
“Once” is short (three pages), but expertly written, with clever metaphors and a rugged first-person voice.
A woman bumps into the mother of her ex-boyfriend at the beach, a beau from years ago that she had met while working at a country club. The narrator says the woman, who is now old and feeble, is her enemy. They exchange a few words, and the mother accuses her of having ruined her son’s love life.

Jess Walter, “Falling Faintly” (McSweeney’s 49)

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The story I liked best in McSweeney’s 49 was Jess Walter’s “Falling Faintly,” after James Joyce’s “The Dead”—in the spirit of this number of McSweeney’s. It’s cleverly textured, funny, insightful, tense. It follows parts of Joyce’s “The Dead,” ends like “The Dead” (with a twist), and refers to “The Dead” constantly along the way. The title is, of course, an allusion to the famous final swoon of “The Dead.”
“Falling Faintly” is a story about Michael, a writer in a bad moment in his life (midlife, divorced, self-questioning), who is called to join a TV show as a writer. It’s a big break, and Michael becomes infatuated with a young actress, Jana, to the point of confessing his love for her while quoting “The Dead” and then pelting her window with snowballs later that evening—for which he gets convicted and sentenced to house arrest.
Being trapped inside his expensive, tiny apartment makes him effervesce with longing for Jana, until, slowly, the longing subsides. At the end, he nearly break…

Anthony Marra, “The Tell-Tale Heart” (McSweeney’s 49)

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Anthony Marra’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” follows closely Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” all within the spirit of McSweeney’s 49’s cover stories theme.
A man confesses before a judge how he murdered his roommate, Richard. He does it, he says, to prove that he is not insane and thus deny the claim his own defense attorney is making.
He had been spying on his roommate, who had been taking pictures of himself in the bathroom for Tinder. The narrator had become more intrusive each night—and added a kitchen knife behind his back the final night. When he thinks Richard spotted him and took a picture of him, he lunges at Richard, stabs him to death, cleans everything up, and “pried open the living floorboards and entombed him within the dusty cavity” (p. 74).

Emily Raboteau, “The Babysitter” (McSweeney’s 49)

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McSweeney’s 49 is devoted to cover stories: remakes of well-known stories by contemporary authors. This has been my favorite volume of McSweeney’s. Some of the authors I liked best I hadn’t read before, so it was a good find on top of a good read, particularly with Jess Walter.

In Emily Raboteau’s “The Babysitter” (after Alice Munro’s “Some Women”), a twelve-year-old, Dana, babysits for a wealthy professor, Eleanor Fagan, who recently lost her husband, shortly after the couple had adopted two small children from Ethiopia. The messiness of the home, and the utter neglect with which Mrs. Fagan lives her life, mark Dana’s time at the Fagan home.
Things become messier when Dennis, the son of Eleanor Fagan’s deceased husband, shows up and brings laughter, drugs, and sex into the house. At the end, jealous that Dennis was having sex with the au pair (Femke), Dana starts a fire that gets blamed on Dennis and leads to Eleanor Fagan relocating.

Kevin A. González, “The Jayuya Uprising” (American Short Fiction, Spring 2018)

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Kevin A. González, “The Jayuya Uprising” (American Short Fiction 66 Spring 2018, pp. 81–129)

I couldn’t stop reading the fifty-page novella “The Jayuya Uprising,” by Kevin A. González, published in American Short Fiction 66. (I recently reviewed a masterful flash fiction piece from the same number of ASF.) Back in 2009, I reviewed a story by González: “Lotería.” I liked it and looked forward to reading more of González’s fiction. I hadn’t bumped into any since then, though, until “The Jayuya Uprising.”
The story centers around a Catholic, school-mandated retreat in Jayuya. This is a town perched in the mountainous center of Puerto Rico. The narrator brings out the town’s nationalist credentials constantly, remembering the 1950 insurrection led by Blanca Canales ("the first and only woman to lead an armed revolt against the United States" [p. 83]).
The narrator is Héctor Manual Acosta (the third, since his father and his grandfather bear the same name) (p. 125). His nemesis i…

Claire Robbins, “Arms Out” (American Short Fiction 66)

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The Spring 2018 edition of American Short Fiction just came out, and it contains the winner of the American Short(er) Fiction contest, judged by Justin Torres: Claire Robbins’s “Arms Out.”
It’s a terrific and terrorizing story. Read it while you’re sinking your teeth into something sweet, to balance out the effect. Here’s the beginning, which sets the stage and the tone for the entire two-and-a-half dizzying pages of the piece:
“Leah and Abbie go into the woods and pretend to be boys all afternoon. Later, Abbie will go to college for three years before she gets pregnant with her first son, while Leah will get pregnant with a daughter at fifteen. They build a bridge by dragging fallen tree trunks over the stream and then cross, arms out for balance” (p. 73).
Snippets of the future are interwoven into the story of Leah and Abbie: they will find pictures of tied-up naked women in the forest, they will lose their younger sister for two days in a cornfield, their pet rabbit will die of dehyd…