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Sometimes It's New YorkReview - Sometimes It's New York
Stories
by Claude Stanush
Wings Press, 2006
Review by Tony O'Brien
Aug 14th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 33)

The title of this collection refers to the fact that thirteen of the stories are set in New York.  The remainder are set in a variety of US cities, in periods from the 19th to the 21st century.  Several stories have been previously published in literary journals, and the author Claude Stanush has a long history of mainly journalistic writing.  The age of a writer is not usually a consideration in reviewing a book, but the fact that Stanush is a tick off 90 years of age is remarkable. The cover notes and an afterword provide some explanation about how Stanush became attracted to fiction writing late in his life.  This has to do with his dissatisfaction with the power of journalism to convey the truth.  There is some irony in using fiction as a vehicle for truth, and Stanush is well aware of that. He regards the term "fiction" as misleading, citing a Latin origin meaning "to deceive".  Fiction, Stanush believes, should be "truthful" in a way that journalism cannot. It should offer a means of understanding human experiences that can barely be appreciated, perhaps something in the manner of Forster's "truth of mood".

The notes in the afterword provides a partial explanation of why some of these stories seem incomplete. It does not seem to be Stanush's intention to round out his fictions through revealing the effect of key events on the characters. Any change that a key character undergoes is only hinted at; change is only a possibility; it is not assured. In some cases this creates a sense that these are not stories at all, but observations about passing lives, imagined or real. Conversations are recounted and observed, events are linked in the form of a plot, but Stanush's task is not always to achieve narrative coherence. Understanding, for this author may not be possible, a point of view shared by several of his protagonists, who argue that understanding is not given to mere mortals, and we should not presume to abrogate this from the almighty. Other protagonists protest this existential agnosticism, but are confounded in their quest for truth.

Many of the stories are set in the 1950s or 60s when Stanush was a mere forty-something. In these pieces he brings to life an almost forgotten rhythm of life, when people were more self contained, yet still with a belief, even a need for, ultimate answers. From the viewpoint of the twenty-first century some of this seems quaint, but we might also look with envy on less complicated lives without cell phones, without the Internet, without the sorts of highly pressured routines that leave little time for the sort of contemplative writing Stanush offers.

The strongest story is A Pair of Shoes, and it is no coincidence that when Stanush approaches his subject indirectly it is more revealing in terms of the internal struggles of the protagonists. A Pair of Shoes differs from most of the other stories in that none of the three main characters is well educated, hence they don't have the intellectual apparatus that can obfuscate rather than clarify issues. The policeman, the man walking home on a freezing New York morning, and the wino huddling in the shelter of a building encounter life with an immediacy that gives readers a clear insight into the moral dilemmas of the story. In the afterword Stanush tells us that he was moved to write by the humanity of Chekov's short stories. In A Pair of Shoes that influence is apparent, both in the deceptive simplicity of the plot, and the way that everyday events, rather than philosophical or religious texts, provide compelling moral challenges. The characters, too, are everyday people.

Bishop O'Hara is another warm and engaging story in which readers are invited to engage in the moral and personal struggles of the main protagonist, the delightfully named and very believable Gerty Gallagher. Gerty desparately wants to lose weight, and to cut down her drinking. But these mutually compatible and laudable goals are severely challenged by the conviviality of Paddy McClairty's Irish Pub on a hot New York evening. Bishop O'Hara doesn't help either. His televised sermon on sin provides moral support for her decision not to drink, but sows the seed of doubt that the desire to lose weight is simply vanity, another sin. Enter a man with a gun and the moral tension is accentuated by real and present danger. Truth of mood? This story has it in buckets.

Other stories show characters engaged in struggles of their own. Some like those of the long dead Daniel Josiah Williams and preacher Brother Ben in Peace and Joy take on old testament proportions, others such as those of the husband and wife of The Butterfly are more mundane. Some People Can explores grief and loss, Live and Let Live, is a moral tale in which fear of snakes is replaced by respect for the natural order of the animal world. The Artist is something of a fable, set over a lifetime in which the woman at the centre of the story paints a series of self portraits as her life meanders along its unsatisfactory course. This story owes something to The Picture of Dorian Gray. One of the longer stories, New York, New York also follows a life that flowers, initially, as a young man develops his talent for writing, only to unravel, perhaps the victim of its own success. This story is mainly set in the 1950s observed by a narrator, who concludes by resuming his own ambitions to write. This story introduces the collection, and appears to have a strong autobiographical component.

Overall this is an interesting collection of work. As stories, the standouts of A Pair of Shoes and Bishop O'Hara are overshadowed by stories in which there is more told than revealed, or where Stanush has seen something he wants to tell us about, but which fall a little flat.  The writing is generally economical, and the characters well evoked. There is a wide range of settings, so each story is something of a mystery, at least initially.  Rewarding reading.

 

© 2007 Tony O'Brien

Tony O'Brien is a short story writer and lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Auckland, New Zealand: a.obrien@auckland.ac.nz

 


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