Good short stories drop us into the middle of situations we can’t help but find riveting, no matter how strange or uncomfortable they may be. Steven Schwartz’s latest collection, Little Raw Souls, is full of such stories. And what makes them especially compelling is the diversity of situations and characters they explore. Here’s just a sampling: a retiree is rooked by a hippie couple who take shelter on his land, a teenager finds that his dreams of becoming a Marine conflict with his dying mother’s wishes, a man reunites with a cousin (and former crush) who has undergone a sex change, a high school teacher holds his class hostage while contemplating suicide.
For all the range of Little Raw Souls, each story is a thoughtfully rendered close-up, as frank in its descriptions and revelations as it is empathetic. One source of the stories’ depth is the connection Schwartz makes between characters’ present lives and their pasts. As he told Steven Wingate in an interview for Fiction Writers Review, “Most of the stories in the collection include some sort of precipitating event that forces the characters to act. … But what’s often driving the characters is the past. Although it may be distant for them, something happens that causes it to become raw all over again. As a writer, you try to create those circumstances, those events and actions that will bring the past to the fore.”
In “Galisteo Street,” the past returns to Ben, a novelist and memoirist, in the form of a daughter, Lydia, he’d fathered years before and given up for adoption. When Ben learns that Lydia has given birth to her first child, he arranges to meet with her and his new granddaughter. During the meeting, he comes to understand that there is no way to bridge the distance between himself and Lydia or to make up for all the years that he’d not been part of her life. After she leaves, Ben revisits the house where he’d lived with Lydia’s mother and where Lydia had been conceived: “That was Lydia’s beginnings, and he could never have known then how much he would desperately want this child to love him as the father she didn’t need.”
In the not-too-distant past described in “Natural Causes,” a retired geology professor, Francis, learns that his wife of many years, Mary, wants to leave him: “She had looked in the mirror one day and wanted to find more of herself.” Mary breaks the news while Francis is driving them to the location of one of his academic meetings. And as she does so another car barrels through an intersection and hits them, killing her. Francis is now faced with accepting, belatedly, the realization that he and Mary had “drifted into separate lives.” He must also decide how to deal with pressures—both internal and external—to move ahead with his life and to find another romantic partner, or not.
Schwartz captures this awkward and confusing state perfectly in bits of dialogue like this—spoken by Francis to Penny, a post-Mary girlfriend he wants to take a break from: “I’m a coward, I’m a child, I’m in the midst of an identity crisis.” Dealing with this identity crisis involves making sense of his own past and figuring out what it means for his future.
Another connection Schwartz explores is that between parents and children, a linkage between the past and the present that also points toward the future. Two of the most moving stories of the collection, “Absolute Zero” and “The Theory of Everything,” pay special attention to the obligations parents feel toward their children, and vice versa, now and in the years ahead.
In “Absolute Zero,” seventeen-year-old Connor is determined to become a Marine and has even started training with a group of them each morning before school. The only obstacle between himself and his dream is his mother, who has been unwilling to sign the forms giving her consent for his enlistment. She is worried that Connor will be throwing away his life, and that he is only searching for “acceptance from other men” given that his father left when he was five.
Complicating the situation is the fact that Connor’s mother is dying. Here is one of their exchanges about Connor’s desire to join the Marines: “I can’t promise,” he said. “You know I can’t.” “Why not? I’m your mother. Doesn’t a condemned person get a last wish?” “Jesus, Mom. Stop already.”
“I can’t promise,” he said.
“You know I can’t.”
“Why not? I’m your mother. Doesn’t a condemned person get a last wish?”
“Jesus, Mom. Stop already.”
Connor must find his own way through this conflict, and he does. By setting us so surely in this young man’s world, Schwartz lets us follow along on his lonely and complicated journey toward honoring both his mother’s wishes and his own.
“The Theory of Everything” describes another complicated course, one taken much later in life. It’s told from the perspective of an elderly man, Mr. Lettler, who, along with his wife, has been forced back into the role of parenting—this time, of their grandson and granddaughter, Jeremy and Abby. The Lettlers’ son (and the children’s father), Rex, is mentally ill and has trouble holding down a job. Their daughter-in-law, Cheryl, is fighting a drug addiction.
The difficulties of fathering first Rex, and now Jeremy and Abby, have made Mr. Lettler a tough customer, able to trust few people other than himself. At one point, Rex claims that he and Cheryl are turning their lives around and plan to run a coffeehouse together, if only his father will cosign a start-up loan. Mr. Lettler reacts with caution and skepticism, for good reason. Despite his advanced age, he must look ahead, past Rex and toward the better lives he hopes his grandchildren will live, if he has any power over things:
Mr. Lettler’s story shows how, every now and then, love must come down to earth. And it’s not necessarily the weaker for it. This is just one of the complicated truths that Little Raw Souls brings to life.
Would My Pick be Your Pick?If you're interested in ________, the answer may be "Yes":
• Emotionally complex stories about parenthood and families
• Coming-of-age stories
• Stories that follow particular people/situations over time
• Stories of love, marital and otherwise
• Stories of neighborhood tensions/conflicts
• Stories of second chances or new beginnings
• The consequences of pursuing (or giving up on) a dream
• Hostage dramas