I read once, and sadly I can’t remember or figure out where, that the early 80s was the golden age of short stories by women, a brief moment where they were what was up in literature. Self-Help by Lorrie Moore, which came out in 1983, and Reasons to Live by Amy Hempel, which came out in 1985, were cited as examples. These two books are, of course, among my favorites and these two women are, of course, as good as it gets. So how lucky do I feel to be able to add to this very short list of witty, pithy, practically perfect writers one more: Stephanie Vaughn. Her collection Sweet Talk first was published in 1978. For me, it clearly inhabits the same funny-sad, true world as Self-Help and Reasons to Live.
It is comprised of ten stories, at least four of which are linked. (I say at least four because there is subtle crossover between some of the other less obviously linked stories). Of these four stories, I’d heard two before on the New Yorker podcast, the last story in the collection, “Dog Heaven,” read by Tobias Wolff and the first story, “Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog,” read by Tea Obreht. These two stories, along with a third, “Kid MacArthur,” are my favorites in the book, and now, three of my favorite stories ever. They center around a young girl named Gemma and the military family she grows up in (in the fourth Gemma story, she is an adult): her linguistically precise, eventually alcoholic, imposing yet sympathetic father, her flawed, loving mother, her sharp, disapproving grandmother, her beleaguered younger brother, MacArthur and her dog, Duke. The family moves around due to the father’s career; this process of landing and uprooting, as well as the particular culture of children growing up on a military base, as well as the particular culture of their household, frames the stories. Another writer might mine these circumstances to the point where they become the story, but Stephanie Vaughn does better than that. Their tragedies are unexpected and unsentimental, their narrator particular without being quirky or precocious.These are not military stories, or coming-of-age stories, or alcoholic father stories. They are “Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog,” “Kid MacArthur,” and “Dog Heaven”–absolutely unique and, like all the best short stories, need to be read to be believed. They are irreducible.
This group of stories accomplishes that very difficult trick of being successful both separately and cumulatively. I had a few tiny hiccups with them, which I want to mention quickly before launching into all the good stuff. There first was that MacArthur was alluded to, very briefly, in the first one or two, yet never appeared in body, leaving me confused about his role in the family for a moment. My other small gripe was that, because these stories were nonlinear from one to the next, and because they were interspersed with other stories in the collection, I spent a good part of one story thinking the protagonist was Gemma when she was not, and a few paragraphs wondering in other cases. Some of the stories were in the third person and clearly were not hers, but a few of the first person stories didn’t immediately telegraph it one way or the other. What was overwhelmingly successful though, is how relationships were revealed through different lenses in the different stories, particularly the relationship between Gemma and her difficult father. When the reader learns of a failure in one story, it adds a dimension to another story that never hints that such a thing could have been coming within its own pages.
Although there were plenty of examples of kinship with Moore and Hempel in terms of subject matter in this book–failed relationships, infidelity, betrayal by friends, challenging motherhood–it was on the sentence level that I really saw the similarities. By this I don’t mean that the sentences were just like those of Moore or Hempel, or that those two writers write like each other–they certainly don’t. What I mean is that there isn’t a sentence in these ten stories that doesn’t do the job of ten sentences. There are no flourishes or tricks here, but each sentence is built from words chosen for maximum use-value. About halfway through the book, in the story “Kid MacArthur,” the story for me that really thrust the book into the top of my favorites list, she writes on page 96, in Gemma’s voice:
“No, thanks,” I said. “My destiny is with the baton.” I was practicing to be a majorette. It was the white tasseled boots I was after, and the pink lipstick. Years later, a woman friend, seeing a snapshot of me in the white-braided costume, a sort of paramilitary outfit with ruffles, said, “What a waste of your youth, what a corruption of your womanhood.” Today, when I contemplate my wasted youth and corrupted womanhood, I recall that when I left high school I went to college. When MacArthur left high school, he went to war.
Did you see that last sentence coming? No way. But going back through the paragraph, no less the start of the story, she’d done all the scaffolding for it. I see here, of course, shades of Jo Ann Beard, too–not just because of the baton, either–but because of the dark humor on the subject of girlhood.
Stephanie Vaughn’s book came out before all the other ones I’m invoking here–I wouldn’t be surprised if these other writers read her, if she inspired them, if instead of comparing her to them, I should be comparing them to her. It’s hard to believe her book has been out of print for so long, though not hard to believe that it was impossible for me to find a copy before it was re-released this year, as much as I wanted to–why would someone who owned this book ever sell it away?