Now this is the type of McSweeney's I've missed! Issue 44 is a standard hardback featuring five great stories and a superb novella, all from tremendously talented writers, almost all of whom are McSweeney's standbys, most of whom we haven't heard from in a while. This issue also features a tribute to Lawrence Weschler, much like Issue 24's tribute to Donald Barthelme.
Rebecca Curtis begins with a story of quarrels between two roommates escalating and escalating. It's a subtle, keenly executed treatise on race, attraction, passive-aggressive sniping, and small wounds wrought large, and how we connect more with our enemies than our lovers. It starts the proceedings well.
Joe Meno follows with a story of a recovering coke addict and his stepdaughter escaping his AA meeting to scare away a polar bear and her cub from causing trouble in their Alaskan small town, a strong story about the ways we influence each other, mostly wordlessly.
Jim Shepard is next (always good to see him), and he writes a story set in Annonay, France in 1783. The piece follows Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier, the inventors of the hot air balloon, one a profligate dreamer, the other a practical thinker, and how their lives intertwine. Shepard’s habit of exposing the true lives of those involved in historical feats continues, told with rich period details and the eagle eye of deep research. It’s a heady piece, not easy to read, but rich in rewards for those who are willing to ferret them out.
Stuart Dybek continues with a short about a retinue of playwrights discussing what happiness is and coming, surprisingly, to an answer. Tom Barbash writes about a young actress who acts her way through her real life just as as she does on stage. She hits a teenage girl in her small town and has to take the girl to the hospital. Confronted by the girl’s parents, she turns in her best performance yet. A powerful story.
And then there's Wells Tower's knock-it-out-the-park novella. Ah, Wells, it's been a while, since Issue 32 with the wonderful "Raw Water." Here he turns in a fantastic story, touching, hilarious, unique, and bizarre. In a prison in Thailand, Wells’ father hangs on to dear life. His cellmates form together to participate in a dance contest held by the warden, and through preparing for the dance, they come together in strange ways. I wish this novella would have been longer, and that's the highest praise anyone can achieve, actual grief at finishing his piece.
The Lawrence Weschler tributes round out the collection. Weschler was a frequent McSweeney's contributor with his "Convergences" series, which were always curious and sometimes illuminating. In essays from Errol Morris, Jonathan Lethem, and others, everyone who had the privilege of knowing Weschler recounts his itinerant interests and philomath's perspective on life--a man to whom a rabbit trail was a mandate. These pieces are fairly repetitive (half of them would have been enough), but the admiration they have for Weschler is, uh, admirable.
Overall, though, there's just too much good fiction to give this issue anything less than the full five stars.