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Sunday, January 22,2012

OU prof's new book sparks nostalgia for short-story era

By Jim Phillips
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Once upon a time, short stories were a staple of America's reading diet – or at least more so than they are today. Good, big-name writers like Fitzgerald, Lardner, Parker and O'Hara cranked them out, and popular magazines carried them.

These days, the short story has been largely consigned to a literary ghetto /boutique, to be savored by connoisseurs, and handled by publishers with the same respect and lack of promotion they give its fellow redheaded stepchild, poetry.

This seems doubly sad after reading "How to Stop Loving Someone," a collection of stories by Ohio University English professor Joan Connor. The stories are finely crafted, with many a sentence you want to read twice; but they're also funny, peopled with real human characters, and – you'll pardon the word – accessible.

Consider the opening story, "Men in Brown," in which the narrator, a hopelessly verbal, compulsively introspective middle-aged woman with a truly bad dating record, recounts her deep crush on her UPS delivery man. (To further clarify the phrase "bad dating record," this woman has gone out with three guys in a row who had steel plates in their heads – a detail Connor admits was drawn from real life.)

Much bitter hilarity ensues, including a scene in which our ever-quipping heroine, butt-naked save for a dripping, dye-soaked towel on her head, answers her front door and accepts the shy offer of a date from her parcel-toting dream lover.

To her pleasant shock, the foray ends in warmth and wild romance. Connor wrote this one on a dare from a friend, who challenged her to compose a story about love and sex "that has a happy ending."

While writing the story, Connor recalled, "I was cracking myself up I thought it was so funny." (During our interview, she laughed easily, wonderfully and often.)

Confirming literature's enduring power to touch our lives, Connor later got a phone call from a small band of UPS delivery men, who had found the story in the journal Glimmer Train, and managed to hunt up her phone number to express their admiration for it.

"They just thought it was hilarious!" she recalled. "It was charming."

Connor started out to be a poet, then gave it up as just too hard a job. Still needing to write, she said, she moved to the short story, in the innocent belief that it was a less demanding form.

"I said, 'I know, I'll write short stories! They'll be easy!'" she recalled. "Ha! They're every bit as difficult as poems." Where a novel affords, and even requires, a throwaway sentence here and there, she said, the short story doesn't allow for such luxury.

"You can have a bad sentence in a novel," she said. "You can't write a bad sentence in a short story. Everything matters... It's a great form, and I love it."

Most of the stories in the book have their funny moments; if the collection has a flaw, in fact, it's probably that too many characters come off a little too witty and verbally facile. But the comedy doesn't soften the emotional punch some of the stories pack.

"If It's Bad, It Happens to Me," for example, is on one level a finely constructed, often amusing character study, through the eyes of a narrator more interesting than the person she's observing. At another level, Connor said, the story is "really about the United States at a particular moment in time."

The female narrator (unemployed, transient, late 40s, one-time drug addict, living in Austin, Texas) follows the travails of her roommate, Austry Ann – the kind of woman who flares every man's nostrils when she walks in the cowboy bar, and makes the narrator feel like a "gaping ape of a sidekick." In the background, George Bush is preparing to devastate Iraq.

Austry Ann is gorgeous and not so bright, and tends to fly into rages when things don't go her way. She's a born victim (hence the story's title); the much tougher, smarter narrator has to rescue her from an obvious scam, in which a notary public is fronting for a sex club. Afterwards, Austry Ann launches into a self-pitying tirade: "Like my life isn't bad enough. I got a lousy job. I am in the middle of a divorce..."

The narrator explodes, reminding Austry Ann that she is employed during a recession, beautiful, not homeless, not hungry, and that many of her problems are of her own making.

"We are on the verge of a war," she points out. "We have an idiot in the White House who wants to maraud into an impoverished country, rip the globe to pieces, expose America to retaliatory terrorist attacks. The decision comes Monday, and you are sitting here in a pool of self-pity because two soft-core freaks process your papers. What would you ever do with a real problem?"

The story ends with the narrator, broke, still unemployed, with nowhere to go, heading out of town for nowhere in a 1964 Galaxie convertible she bought for $100. "I just keep moving," she tells herself. "What else is there to do."

There are other gems in this collection, such as "What It Is," in which Connor surveys the minefield of a new, tentative male-female relationship through two people who meet at a "hardware conference" – which, just possibly, serves as allegory for a literary conference.

"He liked the cut of her nail apron," the story relates deadpan. "She thought his T-bar was cute... Before he headed home, he gave her a copy of his recent manual, 'How to Build a Lean-To.'"

Telling the story from both points of view, Connor makes the woman's anxious desire to please the man poignant and believable, while getting in some surgically precise, yet tender, jabs at the modern man-boy and his need for woman's praise.

"Nobody ever went broke on the male ego, I suppose," Connor mused.

"How to Stop Loving Someone" is available locally at Little Professor Bookstore.


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