David Sedaris, editor,
Children Playing Before
a Statue of Hercules

(Simon & Schuster, 2005)

This volume is more than a series of collected short stories, although the collector alone would warrant purchase of the book. But rather than merely group these stories, David Sedaris did it for charity -- and of the best sort, charity for children.

826NYC is a non-profit organization offering free writing workshops and after-school tutoring to students ages 6 to 18, Sarah Vowell explains in her epilogue. This is a fairly new organization serving about 30 students at the time of publication. Proceeds from sales of this book will contribute to the cost of walk-in tutoring, provided five days a week, plus teachers, supplies and the various paraphenalia of education. It sounds like a wonderful program that will contribute greatly to the improvement of the Brooklyn neighborhood in which it resides.

Now that you know what the book does, here is what it is: 17 short stories of life, featuring humanity at its grittiest, funniest, most appallingly bad-mannered and deadly.

There are a few immediately recognizable author's names, and some I couldn't place at all. There are certain names you expect to see in the table of contents of a collection like this, and I am pleased to say Children is blessedly free of most of them.

There's a story by Dorothy Parker, which is nice, since all the poor woman wanted was to be a novelist. "Song of the Shirt, 1941" reminds me why she was such a good poet instead. The plot is engaging, the characters are developed and compelling, and the reader is smacked in the head with the point at the end. This endearing poetic habit is charming, but in prose it comes off as somewhat insulting to the reader's intelligence. But it was such a good story otherwise.

Likely the most moving story in the book is Lorrie Moore's "People Like That are the Only People Here," comprising a mother's notes written during her son's stay in a pediatric oncology ward. The telling effectively conveys the terror, helplessness and bizarre mindstate of parents faced with a child's health crisis. I had to knock wood every few minutes while reading to try to wash from my imagination all the terrible twists of fate that could befall this paper child I was helpless to save, and for my own children, whom I pray will escape childhood unscathed. Evocative indeed.

There is some "gettin' what they deserve" in here as well. Though only a few pages long, Tobias Wolff's "Bullet in the Brain" features a main character so irritating I would like to have shot him myself. His moment of final reflection can't come soon enough, and strangely it doesn't serve to redeem him -- a literary device well overused. Like Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge," it examines how much a human mind is accomplishing, even in it's very last seconds of existence.

"The Best of Betty" dishes out advice with the ego of Dr. Laura and the mad genius of Betsey Johnson, and freely admits that she's "up to no good." I really think Jincy Willett was on to something here, and I wish there were a real Betty out there to query.

There isn't a bad story in the group. There's none that I finished with a sense of having wasted time I could better have spent weeding the garden (or something time-consuming and tedious of your own choosing).

Of course, what I really want is a new book written entirely by Sedaris, but peeking into what makes his imagination fire is a pretty neat thing to do in the meantime.

- Rambles
written by Katie Knapp
published 30 July 2005

Buy it from Amazon.com.