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This is one of the more difficult reviews I've ever had to write. Daniel Stolar's first collection of short stories has won wide praise and it's easy to see why. He's a fluid and remarkably self-assured rookie, whose stories touch on the myriad social pathologies of the modern middle class--adultery, divorce, racial animus, family dysfunction, isolation, and the like. If you wanted to know what's wrong with the lives that too many of us lead, you could do no better than to read this book.

Unfortunately, it's kind of like going to a Morbidity and Mortality conference at a hospital--we get to explore a number of illnesses, but the patients are the lost causes. There's little in the way of redemption here, and worse, there's little sense that the characters even want to change or be redeemed. They seem largely content to stew in their own toxic juices. That makes them extraordinarily difficult to like or care about, which would be bad enough if it were the secondary characters or if their stories were told in the third person--so that they were in fact case studies, who we were being asked to observe, dissect, and learn from--but given that they're the protagonists and so often the narrators and that such a structure implies that our rooting interest, or at least some level of sympathy, is supposed to lie with them, it makes for a real problem.
Here are a few examples of what we're dealing with: (1) Jack Landers is My Friend: except that Jack Landers has left his wife and sixteen month old son, both of whom he maintains he loves, at home while he goes to a class reunion where he hopes to get jiggy with a girl he used to know. (2) Home in New Hampshire: in which Dean has decided to leave his paralyzed wife after cheating on her repeatedly. (3) Crossing Over: wherein a young Jewish man tries to pledge a black fraternity. (4) Fundamentals: which asks us to find unforgivable a father's overbearing desire for his son to fulfill his own dreams of playing basketball. Sure, we all know the damage that unfair expectations can do to a kid, but the father in Fundamentals is no Great Santini and when the son is grown he reacts to his upbringing by not expecting anything of anyone. A schoolteacher, he tells us that: "I refuse to put grades on papers and am regularly reprimanded by the principal foe giving too many A's at the end of term." Meanwhile, he sets the basket in his own backyard at 8 feet, even though his own son is perfectly capable of moving up to a regulation ten foot rim because: "My father never let me play with a lowered basket." We can regret that his father was so tough on him personally and still be furious that he in turn is getting his revenge on the world generally.

The main character in The Trip Home, Jonathon, who has become dependent on Xanax to get him through the day after the death of his wife, speaks for many of us in the following passage about his brother-in-law:
Once when they visited us in Kansas City, Harvey and I sat in the bleachers at a Royals game. There, among feathered hair and beer bellies, we took off our shirts and drank Busch beer from yellow paper cups. Standing up after the top half of the seventh, Harvey turned to me, his face red from the beer and sun. "Man," he said, "I'm jealous of you and Clara. You two have it all figured out. My life can get pretty complicated sometimes." I looked him square in the eye then and told him that life was only as complicated as you made it.
A whole heck of a lot of folks in these stories--including, as it turns out, Jonathon himself--need to be looked square in the eye.

Don't get me wrong here, though I admittedly am, I don't think this is merely a matter of me being judgmental and insensitive. There's a real sense here that the characters are at best powerless to overcome the problems they've made for themselves, at worst have almost consciously chosen them. In fact, it seems not too much to suggest that the characters wallow in their problems as almost a form of Political Correctness, as if it's better to behave like a victim than to exert control over your life, as witness this description from Crossing Over:
Lydia and I have a tight-knit social group of some five or six couples, and we rotate making dinner at each other's houses. We talk about NPR and independent movies and what we've read in The New Yorker or Sunday Times. We refuse to buy SUVs, and we still occasionally smoke pot. And though we don't say it, we congratulate ourselves for both. It goes without saying as well that we would rather have our children turn out gay than Republican.
To each his own, I suppose, but is the highest aspiration in life really to be a politically-correct caricature? I mean, how can you take an adult seriously who thinks smoking dope still makes them cool? Can you read that and not laugh out loud at folks who think that way? I couldn't.

What makes all of this so frustrating is that Mr. Stolar is as good a writer as his characters are aggravating. Two things though give one reason to hope that future efforts will be more enjoyable. First, taken on their own--as short stories are more typically offered--the constancy of some of these themes would be less noticeable. The occasional visit with one of these characters might well be easier than the immersion in a whole series of them. Second, they say that every author begins writing with autobiographical material, because that's what they know best. Mr. Stolar is from a middle class Jewish background in St. Louis; with a particularly political mother who sadly died of breast cancer; he graduated Harvard and attended medical school briefly; and his stories in turn draw heavily on Jewish life (though a disturbingly secularized form of Jewish life), his hometown, disease, and a Democratic worldview. It will be interesting to see what themes he turns his hand to now that he's gotten these out of his system. Anyone who can write this well--and so confidently within narrow confines--can certainly produce worthwhile stories about the wider world. We eagerly await such tales.


Grade: (B-)


See also:

Short Stories
Daniel Stolar Links:

    The Trip Home (Daniel Stolar, Tucson Weekly)
    -SHORT STORY: Fundamentals (Daniel Stolar, Double Take)
    -SHORT STORY: Vietnam Challenged (Daniel Stolar)
    -ESSAY: Cut and Paste (Daniel Stolar, June 2003, Commonspace)
    -INTERVIEW: Night Writer: Talking with author Daniel Stolar (STACEY RICHTER, JUNE 5, 2003, Tucson Weekly)
    -PROFILE: Second Calling: For three authors with debut works out this summer, writing fiction represents a detour on life's path. (Sandee Brawarsky, 07/25/2003, Jewish Week)
    -EMERGING ARTISTS: Daniel Stolar (2002 Arizona Commission on the Arts Fellowship Recipients)
    -REVIEW: of Middle of the Night (Josh Lambert, J Books)
    -REVIEW: of Middle of the Night:Ê A triumph of the written word: Daniel Stolar's first collection of short stories depicts life with honesty. (CYNTHIA RAMSAY, THE JEWISH BULLETIN)

Book-related and General Links: