Stephen Dobyns,
Eating Naked
(Picador, 2001)

I'm not usually a fan of short stories, but if more writers took Stephen Dobyns' lead, short stories would be a lot more popular. Too often, short stories are a cheap way to skim on true character development, or a way to pull flashy tricks and twists. Collections are usually uneven, with only a few stand-outs among the filler. But Dobyns has written a collection of stories that breaks the bar.

The challenge of reviewing this collection lies in summarizing his delightfully bizarre creations without cheapening them. Dobyns creates a small world with each tale and unravels the lives of his characters as they achieve major turning points. Each story covers an entire person's life, the individual's entire backstory, but the present action focuses on one turning point or strange occurrence.

The collection opens with the tale of the unfortunate death of the poet Jason W. Plover, who was killed by a movie-star pig that fell out of the sky during a shoot and crushed Plover in Harvard Square. Unfortunately, the late Plover once composed a poem titled "The Pig & I," and his bizarre death catapults him into frenzied superstardom, much to the discomfort of his widow Harriet.

How can Dobyns follow this story? With the title story about two disaffected persons brought together by a roadkill deer for an unforgettable night, and with my personal favorite, the life of mobile home owner Lilly Hendricks and her uncomfortable reunion with the five children she had given up for adoption over her lifetime.

Other stories focus on the strained marital relations of a Chaucer professor, on the intense friendship between two construction workers (and the dollhouse one builds as a tribute to the other), or a man dating a married woman and becomes obsessed with meeting her cuckolded husband and exposing the wife's indiscretions. In the chilling story "Dead Men Don't Need Safe Sex," an abandoned ex-husband maneuvers a way to interview his former wife about the reasons she left him.

This is an unforgettable collection of well-crafted stories. Don't miss it!

by Jessica Lux-Baumann
8 July 2006

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