Give someone you love nightmares this holiday season. Nightmares — and an incredible read. These books are tough to find, but worth the hunt. Let’s begin with the story collection Nebraska by Ron Hansen. It contains a short story, Wickedness, which I read with my fellow newbie writers in… 1992? The writing is so vivid, and the images and actions are so perfectly depicted that most of those friends and I can recount almost every plot point thirty years later. So, look for Nebraska, but be warned that it’s strong stuff.
Amy Hempel brought this book to my attention. Since then I’ve bought and given away more copies than I can remember. If there was ever a collection of stories darker and funnier then Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, this might be it. People who read this book will own a copy for their rest of their lives.
Ever since I read Diaz’s first story in Story magazine1 — about two boys looking for a third boy whose face has been eaten away by a pig — I’ve loved this book.
Tobais Wolff has this wonderful trick of building a huge frame in which he eventually tells a small, amazing story. People tell me he’s borrowed this technique from Chekov, but it works beautifully in stories such as Leviathan and Bullet in the Brain. The latter is the highlight of this collection. If you’ve got a small, fast-paced story idea consider this method for framing it and growing an anecdote into a bonafide short story.
If you’ve wondered how you might present a loosely linked series of characters or short stories, this book is a perfect model. The tone is light and fun, like watching an evening of music videos in the glory days of MTV, but the emotion piles up quietly.